A third source to boost living standards: the family

Policymakers should seek to mitigate the barriers to the giving and receiving of financial and practical support between family members.

Alongside tackling the deficit, the government‘s priority is now tackling another major economic problem: the rising cost of living, caused by a mix of stagnant wages, a real terms reduction in benefits, and inflation. But with public spending constrained and economic growth still fragile, policymakers need to think creatively about solutions beyond the traditional reliance on the state or the market to help struggling families.

A recent report by the Child Poverty Action Group and Joseph Rowntree Foundation demonstrates the scale of the problem for families on modest incomes: over the past year the average cost of raising children has risen by 4% for those also paying for childcare. 

To boost family incomes, policymakers tend to fixate on two levers: the state or the market. Either government, through increased cash transfers or reduced taxation, or businesses, through increased wages, are called upon to do more. Under the last Labour government, cash transfers from the state to low-income families increased substantially with some notable successes, such as the reduction in the number of children living in poverty. The coalition government has prioritised reducing income tax. Recent emphasis has shifted to the role employers can play in boosting income: there is campaigning from across the main political parties to increase the minimum wage and spread the voluntary living wage to more employers.

The state and market should do more to help alleviate poverty. But the current economic conditions limit their reach. So it is also worth exploring how a third major resource can help improve family incomes: a person’s wider family.

Already, a significant minority of households receive regular financial support from their wider family, predominantly their parents. It is estimated that about 1 in 6 households regularly receive financial help from their parents with the average received in one year about £1,400. The national annual flow of such transfers is estimated to be about £1.2bn. But this undervalues the scale of transfers taking place: it misses out those who receive money through inheritance, which is estimated to be about £30bn a year.

Forthcoming research from the Social Market Foundation found that many on the lowest incomes, especially those experiencing circumstantial poverty due to unemployment or divorce, receive significant financial support from their parents, often worth thousands of pounds. And in-kind support such as the provision of childcare and shopping is also common and saves households significant amounts of money.

The family, then, is often a major but hidden form of welfare. Its impact can be quite remarkable. There can be a considerable improvement in living standards of low income families who receive support from parents: they are better able to work or train, and afford a wider range of goods from children’s clothes to holidays.

Policymakers should seek how to mitigate some of the barriers to the giving and receiving of financial and practical support between family members. Obviously, the lack of familial exchange may be explained by geographical or emotional distance between relatives. But there are other barriers such as money and time: for example, especially with cultural and governmental expectations to work for longer in older age, grandparents will have less time in the week to provide support.

Employment for older people could be more flexible. Since the late 1980s, DIY retailer B&Q has encouraged older workers, with a quarter of its workforce now over the age of 50, by ensuring flexible working – including for caring responsibilities – is part of the company culture. Maybe this could be nudged along by making parental leave, especially parents’ unpaid entitlement, transferable to grandparents if unused?

To tackle the financial constraints some families face, maybe tax efficient, high-interest multigenerational family trusts could be established to encourage low-income families to build up a pot of money to help different generations in testing times?

This year’s Budget – with announcements to help families with childcare, petrol and housing costs – showed that the government is focussing on measures to boost living standards for those on modest incomes. But policymakers will need to think creatively and draw on multiple sources: the state and the market, yes, but also the family.   

About 1 in 6 households regularly receive financial help from their parents with the average received in one year about £1,400. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.