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IDS cites "personal observations" to defend junk statistic

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

Photograph: Getty Images

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.