We have to offer the working poor something better than mere survival

Our energies are focussed on getting people back into work. But we need a better offer for people working on low incomes better than subsistence.
 

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The point about work is that it’s supposed to allow you to pay your bills, fund a few luxuries every now and then and even let you put a bit aside. For millions of people struggling with low wages, job insecurity and the cost of living crisis, that’s exactly what isn’t happening.

Take Bill and Jane. They have two children. Bill works full-time in the leisure sector but even so, the family’s average weekly expenditure in 2014 exceeded their income by £59.52, leaving them paying back a debt of £1,600:

“I mean, I’ve always worked, it’s always been instilled in me that you work, even with my disability, you work” he said. “It’s a pride thing as well. It makes you feel better if you work, I would never, unless my disability got so bad that I couldn’t, I would never not work...”

Bill and Jane’s story is contained in a new report: “Getting By? A Year in the Life of 30 Working Families in Liverpool”. It takes the form of first-person accounts of how real families are struggling to cope.

Researchers followed the families’ progress over a 12-month period, through weekly spending diaries tracking their income and expenditure, followed-up by detailed face-to-face interviews. Not only are the individual stories that were unearthed heart-rending, they are maddening too.

Ruth tells of the moment her daughter realised the family had a lack of money: “She’s old enough to sort of understand. She’s like ‘we are poor, why couldn’t I have been born to a rich family?’”

What can a parent say to that? It’s not Ruth’s fault, or the fault of any working adult trying to keep their family afloat and bring in whatever they can. The cost of living crisis, public spending cuts and a weak economy are not their doing.

This was Beatrice Webb’s point in 1909 when she wrote her famous Minority Report as a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress 1905–09. Her argument was that the poor are not the architects of their predicament.

The world that the Getting By? families inhabit is depressing familiar to those times. It is a place of chronic job insecurity, stagnant wages and the ever-present spectre of debt. And a place of constant anxiety as household bills, rent and childcare costs undermine finely-balanced family budgets, which can only ever pay for essentials.

Despite this, they persevere. These are not tabloid “scroungers,” but proud, hard-working people. Eileen, a mother of four, is typical: 

“The main reason why it’s majorly important for me [to have a job] is because I need my kids to see me getting up and working for a living every morning. I’m leading by example. I think it’s important that they know that you get nothing unless you get out of bed and earn it.”

The injustice in the report is palpable. It shines a light on decent people who, despite trying their hardest, are trapped at the bottom of an hour-glass economy that simply doesn’t deliver for them or for millions of working people like them in Britain today.

So they find themselves in a permanent state of living day-by-day, hand-to-mouth. Where a stagnant minimum wage does not “make work pay” as ministers glibly insist. Where providing essentials for their family leaves nothing for kids’ treats. Where people are starting work earlier and finishing later. And travelling further and further to do so.

Getting By? is a standing challenge to all parties: end the exploitation of the working poor. Reward hard work with the prospect of better times. Show that employment is a pathway out of poverty.

In short, offer the hard-working, low-paid something more than the dismal prospect of just ‘getting by.’

Joe Anderson is Mayor of Liverpool. 

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