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

Getty Images.
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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.