The cycle between work and the dole is trapping millions in poverty

With one in six of the workforce having claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance in the last two years, job insecurity is hindering attempts to reduce poverty.

It’s important that in-work poverty is now firmly on the agenda. Research by the New Policy Institute for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that, for the first time, more working families are in poverty than people in workless and retired families combined (52 per cent compared to 48 per cent).

But we must not lose sight of the fact that those in poverty, whether in work or out of work, are often the same people churning from low-paid, insecure and part-time employment to unemployment, and back again.

The reality is that the churn in and out of work, due to the economic climate, has never been larger and that people are constantly moving in and out of employment. It would be careless to talk about two distinct groups of people – those who work and those who do not. That would be easy. In reality, the situation is far more complicated. Between April 2011 and April 2013, 4.8 million different adults claimed Jobseeker's Allowance: one in six of the workforce, two-fifths of whom had never previously claimed.

There is good news, though. The number of workless households is at its lowest level since 1996, when the data series started. Only a small minority of these workless households are ones where no adult has ever worked (8 per cent, or 1.5 per cent of all households). And the proportion of households who experience worklessness in a given year has generally been falling since 1996, from around 21 per cent (with 1 per cent never having worked). There was a rise in 2009 as the recession began, but now it is decreasing.

This fall cannot be attributed solely to an increase in employment, as it also reflects changing household formation. There has been a large increase in the number of young adults living with their parents. Households where no adult has ever worked are likely to contain much younger people. More than half of those in never-worked households are under 25, compared to only 13 per cent in currently workless households. Almost half (48 per cent) living in households where no one has ever worked are students.

As George Osborne said in the Autumn Statement, the labour market appears to be improving at last. Unemployment and underemployment have stopped rising and workless households have decreased. This good news masks the fact that when people do get into work, they are more likely to be paid below the Living Wage (as five million people are) and millions are trapped between poorly paid, insecure jobs and unemployment.

But the insecurity faced by people trying to get into and stay in work still remains a huge problem and is hindering attempts to reduce poverty. That insecurity means millions of people are stuck in a cycle – churning between work and the dole. It would be better if government policy and announcements reflected that.

Aleks Collingwood is Programme Manager for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Children's clothing is hung out to dry on a residential development in Tower Hamlets. Photograph: Getty Images.

Aleks Collingwood is Programme Manager for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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