Washing hangs out to dry in the London borough of Tower Hamlets on February 21, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Three ways the recovery could turn the rising tide of poverty

History tells us growth doesn’t always filter to the poorest – here’s how it could.

Economic news has been noticeably cheery recently. Today, the ONS announced the economy grew by 0.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2014 – the fifth successive period of GDP growth. Yesterday, the CBI reported survey results showed business optimism at its highest since the survey started in 2003. And two weeks ago, the ONS reported that wage growth had caught up with inflation and that there were 239,000 more people employed between December 2013 and February 2014 than in the previous three months. 

There are caveats to this good news. When bonuses were excluded, wage rises were still lower than inflation. On employment, 61 per cent of the rise was in self-employment, which is associated with higher poverty and can indicate that people are struggling to find jobs in other parts of the economy. But the general trends are looking positive.

We are not cheering yet, though, because increasing evidence shows that a return to growth will not necessarily benefit those on low incomes. Evidence from the Resolution Foundation’s Commission on Living Standards analysed household incomes in the period of growth between 2003 and 2008. This showed that increases in low and middle incomes came mainly from tax credits; these families benefited remarkably little from economic growth itself.

JRF’s research has shown that this is also the case when you look at the economies of cities: many of the cities which achieved the best economic growth saw poverty stay the same or get worse. A study examining the experiences of deprived communities showed that they were hit hardest by recessions, but did not necessarily benefit from recovery.

These studies highlight two important reasons why growth does not benefit those at the bottom. First, higher employment is the main way that growth reduces poverty but tends to be distributed unevenly with significant groups of people, and places, excluded. Second, since the early 1990s, improvements in productivity have increased wages for the top but not the bottom half of earners.

Our evidence suggests three ways to make sure the emerging recovery helps those on low incomes.

First, create better jobs as well as more jobs. For example:

  • Raise the National Minimum Wage and promote take up of the Living Wage.
  • Create industrial strategies for low pay/low skill sectors such as retail, care, hospitality, logistics and warehousing.
  • Address youth unemployment by improving careers advice and creating more and better apprenticeships.
  • Improve the design of Universal Credit so that people can keep more of the money they earn.

Second, improve the quality of childcare, as well as its affordability and availability, through: 

  • More generous, shared maternity and paternity leave.
  • Higher qualifications for staff who have or are working towards a childcare related level 3 qualification.
  • Using the new Early Years Premium to increase access to high quality childcare among children from low income backgrounds.

Third, reduce living costs:

  • Increase affordable housing by giving social landlords more flexibility around setting rents, reforming the private rental sector to provide more secure tenancies and supporting councils to build more social housing.
  • Reduce the poverty premium, where low income households pay as much as 10p in the £1 more for utilities and financial services. 
  • Reform policies on energy and climate change so that they do not further disadvantage low income households.

These steps would help us to avoid repeating the history of recoveries failing to help those who have suffered most in recessions.

Helen Barnard is a Policy and Research Manager for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.