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 Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.