IDS cites "personal observations" to defend junk statistic

"Three generations of worklessness": still not that common.

The claim that there is a sizeable chunk of families in Britain with multiple generations who have never worked is perseverant. Dame Carol Black spoke of "three generations of men who have never worked"; Chris Grayling of "four generations of families where no-one has ever had a job".

Last December, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation chronicled those claims in a report looking at "cultures of worklessness", and found that they were extremely difficult – if not impossible – to back up. As I wrote at the time:

The foundation was assured, at least, that there were families with two generations of worklessness, and even made an infographic detailing the evidence that they exist – even if they do make up just 0.09 per cent of the working population.

So evidence is slim as to how many households there are with three generations of worklessness; whatever the number, it's really, really low.

KazzJenkins, a constituent of Paul Goggins MP wrote to Iain Duncan Smithwho has repeated the claims himself – to ask how many families there actually were with three generations of worklessness. IDS replied:

My statement was based on personal observations. Statistical information on the number of UK families in which three generations have never worked is not available, as there is no existing data source which would allow us to produce a robust and representative estimate.

Lindsey Macmillan, writing for Inequalities, argues that that's not quite the case:

There is clear evidence that shows how rare a phenomenon the never-working family is.
In my paper in Dec 2011, I looked at the number of households where two generations had never worked. Evidence from the Labour Force Survey, which is used by DWP in their labour market statistics analysis, showed that in Spring 2010, only 0.3% of multi-generational households were in a position where both generations had never worked. That’s just 15,000 households in the country. Of these, in 5,000 households the younger generation had only just left full time education, within the last year, and so had barely had a chance to work yet.

Importantly, Macmillan goes one step further, and looks at the number of families who aren't in the same household who have never worked. She writes:

There is very little evidence of even two-generation-never-working families, driven by the fact that so few of the younger generation are never in work (less than 2% by age 23 and less than 1% by age 29). Instances of three-generation-never-working families would be even rarer.

IDS should base policy a little less on "personal observations" and a little more on measurable facts.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.