Monthly Archives: March 2012

Weekly Round up 30/03/2012

News in Brief

Riot report 

The Independent Riots Communities and Victims Panel released their report this week and the press gave attention to 500,000 ‘forgotten families’. The Guardian letters page looked at the ‘riot’s deeper roots in poverty and alienation’, the Family and Parenting Institute released a very brief statement but which was made the very clear point that parenting ‘does not take place in a vacuum’ and the Centre for Social Justice released their response which suggested that:

From chaotic families, failed parenting, absent fathers and 16 year old school pupils utterly unprepared for the real world, to a revolving door prison system which does nothing to change lives. The riots were a disgraceful warning shot from a drifting generation which is cut off from the mainstream of society

The mid-week post next week will hopefully be about the apparent ‘mixing’ of the troubled families and child poverty agendas, following on from a discussion at a recent policy network meeting a couple of weeks back.

Thriving or Surviving Survey

Together with VONNE, the North East Child Poverty Commission are carrying out a survey exploring the effects of the cuts of children and young people’s charities and voluntary organisations in the North East. If you are a voluntary sector organisation in the region that delivers services to children and young people, please take 10 minutes or so to tell us about the impact on your organisation. The survey can be found here.

Regional Economy  

A blog on the New Start website looked at the ‘problem with regional pay’, a Survation poll compiled on behalf of Progressive Polling  showed little support for regional pay and The Economist looked at what an independent Scotland might mean for the North East. Meanwhile, Channel 4 reported that Britain’s working poor were ‘at tipping point’

General comment

Sir Stuart Rose (of Marks and Spencer fame) suggested that ‘we need to have an urgent debate on pay’

A very interesting post on the Arts Council website highlighted the role that libraries can play in tackling poverty

And an article from America looked at the specific issues that single mothers face in trying to escape poverty

Signposts

The new national and independent Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission are now looking to appoint members

The Centre for Economic & Social Inclusion updated their Child Poverty Toolkit facility

As part of the Danish Presidency of the European Council 2012, a conference was held on the themes of children’s rights and child poverty

Graphics of the week

Public responses to the proposal to introduce regional pay, courtesy of Left Foot Forward

Best wishes,

Steve


A change in circumstance

As of next  week, I will become one of the 6 million people ‘under-employed’ in the UK, the group of people that is not working as much as they would like to. This post provides a bit of background to how this came about and also provides a brief update on what these arrangements mean for the North East Child Poverty Commisison.

The funding for my post for the current financial year came from the Regional Improvement and Efficiency Partnership (RIEP) in the North East. This was funding provided by the last government to improve partnership working and efficiency between public sector bodies in each of the old Government Office regions. The funding, which was coming to an end anyway, was not continued by the  Coalition Goverment, which was not unexpected given their preference for localism over regionalism.

The Commission has been successful in securing funding to continue the post of a regional coordinator for child poverty work in the North East and this has come from two sources. The Association of North East Councils has provided funding to continue core work supporting the Commission and associated policy work. This includes a regional policy network which supports local authority and voluntary sector officers with responsibility for child poverty work (also supported by officers from the Child Poverty Unit and CPAG) and a programme of regional seminars sharing research findings around child poverty related work. These events have facilitated discussions around the Pupil Premium, the role of aspirations in educational attainment and the neglected issue of maternal poverty.

The other source of funding has been the Millfield House Foundation, a local grant making body with a reputation for supporting ‘initiatives which tackle poverty, disadvantage and exclusion, and promote social and economic change, in the North East of England’. This funding will be used to develop a project looking at the role of employers in the North East and exploring ways that they can help to ensure that work always does offer a route out of poverty.

Further funding is still being sought to develop a project which will challenge public attitudes towards poverty in the region and which will attempt to tackle some of the misconceptions about the causes of poverty. This will hopefully involve some campaigning work and an extension of the social media work we are currently developing.

The Commission is a very new project, it is not a registered charity and does not deliver services directly to children and families living in poverty. Funding for many organisations is extemely tight at the moment and it is perhaps understandable that many funders and grant making bodies choose to focus on well established projects that make an immediate difference to people’s lives and do not deal in the grey area of ‘policy influence’ or ‘knowledge transfer’. Millfield House, therefore, deserve credit for being prepared to take a slight risk in funding the work of the Commission and this is in-line with their emphasis ‘on tackling the causes of poverty and other social ills rather than alleviating the symptoms’.

On a personal level, I feel like I’m now a bona fide member of the squeezed middle (if such a thing exists) which is interesting (to me at least) as this is are a group that I have previously not given much thought to. I have written before that a focus on the squeezed middle distracts attention from those at both the top and bottom of our society and my new personal circumstances have done little to alter this view. I appreciate that each individuals or families circumstances will be different but I feel that people who may find themselves in a position similar to mine have a lot more things they can cut back on to save money than someone with a income around the 60% threshold. We are able to exercise far more choice than others on a lower income may be able to do.

As members of the squeezed middle, we can save money through requiring less childcare, we can cut back on car journeys, we can choose to shop in different supermarkets, we can choose to take a cheaper – or shorter – holiday and we can eat out less. In other words, our finances are being gently squeezed, but we’re not exactly being throttled.

Kind regards,

Steve


Weekly Round up 23/03/2012

Apologies for missing the weekly round-up last week but time was a bit tight and basically everyone was talking about what might happen in the Budget so we thought it might be better to leave it and let everyone talk about what did happen in the budget before posting again……

News in Brief

Budget 

It’s been covered in great detail elsewhere so we won’t spend too long on the Budget here. But, JRF produced a very good briefing on what the budget meant for child poverty and IPPR looked at the impact of the budget on the North.

The Guardian asked a panel of experts, inclduing Alison Garnham, Chief Exec of CPAG. for their views and The IFS produced a good summary of the whole thing in 13 slides. The figure below is taken from the chapter on the impact on Households within the Budget document (available here), which shows that the poorest quintile of households suffered the most, with exception of the richest quintile

Regional Pay was a Budget issue that concerned people in the North East and The Journal and the Shields Gazette and the Sunderland Echo all covered this issue from a North East perspective, The Guardian suggested it could lead to regional shortages of teachers and the TUC launched a Pay Fair campaign on Twitter

Employment

JRF and Women Like Us produced a very interesting piece of work on the benefits (and challenges) of building a sustainable quality part-time recruitment marketwhile, coincidentally, Salon published a piece by Sara Robinson which suggested that 150 years of research proves that long hours at work kill profits, productivity and employees.

The TUC published their latest Employment Blackspots and the North East was , unfortunately, well represented. Middlebrough was the second hardest place to get a job with approximately 24 claimants for every vacancy and threee other Local Authorities in the North East in the top 10 for youth unemployment.

Education – pupil premium

The Guardian published some data obtained by David Lammy MP that suggested that the Pupil Premium was ending up in places where it might be hard to argue it was most needed. The Full Fact website checked out this assertion a few weeks ago….

General comment

Lots of comment this week to distract you from the Budget….

Fraser Nelson argued in The Telegraph that ‘At the heart of the Child Poverty Act lies an agenda which has arguably done more damage to Britain’s social fabric than any idea in modern history’ 

David Brady argued for a wider view of the welfare state in The Guardian, who also featured articles on ‘the working poor’ in the UK today and the supposed ‘culture of poverty’ in the US – all worth reading.

The Centre for Research on Families and Relationships published a report on Parenting on a Low Income and The Nuffield Foundation published a report exploring the role of informal childcare in the UK.

Graphics of the week

An excellent graph from the New Economics Foundation who called the the budget one ‘for the 1%’. The graph, which will get bigger if you click on it, suggests that it is not the size of our public sector debt that should be the primary concern of our nation….

Best wishes,

Steve


Left holding the baby?

The start of a discussion on childcare……

There have been a number of discussions taking place recently around childcare in the UK and the role it can play in supporting female employment and economic recovery. The role of childcare in childhood and child development is the subject of less public discussion which, I would argue, is unfortunate. The cost of childcare is a concern to parents, politicians and policy-makers alike and a recent Panorama programme highlighted ‘The Cost of Raising Britain’. Women’s employment issues have also been highlighted recently with a number of shocking statistics showing that women are bearing the brunt of the job losses that have been announced to date.

It is against this backdrop that a number of reports have recently been published which have explored different ways that childcare provision (mainly affordability and accessibility) in the UK could be improved and women could be ‘freed up’ to return to the labour market.  The Social Market Foundation, IPPR and The Resolution Foundation have all recently published reports that make the economic case for improving access to childcare and improving women’s employment. All three ‘think-tanks’ that produced the reports are usually primarily concerned with economic issues and it is through this prism that they advocate the case for improving the provision of childcare. They advocate different approaches to doing this and all are excellent contributions to discussions about female and, more specifically, maternal employment concerns.

However, it is disappointing that there is no substantial counter-narrative or alternative view to this perspective. No ‘think-tanks’, to the best of my knowledge have come out with a proposal to support mothers wanting to stay at home with their children (although The Daily Mail has suggested this needs to be done). Nobody has expressed concern at the way stay at home mothers are portrayed as being some kind of economic liability and/or selfish. The press release for one of the reports stated that by removing some of the barriers to childcare, this innovative scheme can help parents do what’s best for themselves and their children. What does it tell us about our approach to raising our children when it is inferred that the best thing for both parent and child is to be separated early on so that the parent can get back to work and the child can receive a more ‘stimulating’ upbringing?

Another of the reports notes that 55% of UK mothers in couple’s families already work part time and that this:

‘high level of female part-time work in the UK therefore means that an unusually large portion of the prize of higher UK female employment income lies in the potential for working women to increase their hours’. (my emphasis)

 So not only should women go back to work, but those already in employment should also considering working longer hours?

The reports tend to present childcare as a universal good and don’t really touch on any inconsistency of the quality of available childcare. Whilst there is some good evidence that at the right age and in the right quantity, childcare can help to provide positive outcomes for children, this ground is very contested and there are also competing views about outcomes for children placed in childcare for long hours at an early age. Back in 2004, it was reported that:

The government is reconsidering its strategy on childcare in the face of mounting evidence that day nurseries for children under two can lead to increased incidence of antisocial behaviour and aggression. Ministers also fear a public backlash against putting pressure on mothers to get back to work…

Recent policy decisions in this area seem ambiguous. The withdrawal of child benefit from higher rate taxpayers potentially disadvantages stay at home mums, but it has been suggested that Universal Credit favours a ‘single earner’ model of household income and tax-breaks have been mooted for working parents who employ domestic staff. We have highlighted the implications of a broad range of policies in other posts on this blog, such as ‘Maternal Poverty in the Age of Austerity’ and ‘Women and Children Last?’

The discussion of social and emotional issues in primarily economic terms is nothing new of course. I am always disappointed, for example, to see immigration discussed almost exclusively in terms of positive impact on the economy on one side or the amount of jobs taken by foreign nationals on the other, and the recent discussions about the Welfare Reform and Health and Social Care bills are often couched in terms of economic necessity or efficiency rather than care and security.

The lack of a strong alternative voice to the economic narrative (more than the focus of the reports themselves) is, it could be argued, a good example of a wider malaise about how we view childhood in the country. International comparisons suggest that children’s well-being in the UK does not compare favourably with children in other countries, we have been criticised for our approach to children’s rights and I would suggest that we see childhood not as an important stage in its own right but merely as a ‘base camp’ in preparation for adulthood. Witness the primacy of the social mobility agenda over the child poverty agenda and the introduction of measures relating to ‘children’s life chances’ as examples of this view. Young people, often described in deficit models such as NEETS, are seen as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

In summing up, I’d like to absolutely clarify that I am not ‘against’ women working, but nor am I ‘for’ women staying at home and I am not advocating for either position here. What I am advocating for is a more balanced narrative about childcare and parental employment and the role of children in our society which doesn’t prescribe or imply certain roles for women and mothers and which does not disadvantage parents who wish to stay at home. We haven’t even touched on the role of fathers in this discussion.

Children, in the longer term, are essential for economic growth, if that is you’re interested in but, in the short term, they are often viewed as getting in the way of people, usually women, working. It could be argued that they are, therefore, viewed primarily as a drain on the state. As for women, at the moment, it appears that they have to choose between helping their country out of a desperate economic situation and rearing their children themselves. All at a time when female unemployment stands at its highest level for 25 years…..

As ever, we’d be interested in people’s thoughts on this.

Best wishes,

Steve


Wel-unfare: Benefit fraud, error and philanthropy

The issue of benefit fraud often receives some pretty harsh coverage in sections of the media and some politicians are also prone to making unhelpful statements about what is actually a very small minority of benefit recipients. What doesn’t receive as much coverage is the underclaiming of certain benefits and it is this issue that is the focus of this post. This post is also not a defence of fraudulent activity within the benefit system.

Fraud and Error

Fraud and error within the benefits system are often reported together, which many people have criticised as they are both separate issues. This way of doing things means that the figure reported for fraud and error is higher than that for fraud alone. According to a press release by the DWP on 23 February 2012 titled ‘Universal Credit – weapon against benefit fraudsters’ (my emphasis) the figures lost to fraud and error were as follows:

  • £1.2 billion lost to fraud
  • £1.3 billion lost to customer error
  • £0.8 billion lost to official error

So error accounts for approximately 1.5 times as much lost as fraud with a total for the two combined of around £3.3.billion. The press release also documents new powers which will introduce tougher penalties for fraudsters. These figures and the press release were based on a lengthy report called ‘Fraud and Error in thew Benefit System’.

Benefit Fraud campaigns

The DWP also run a campaign to catch people attempting to defraud the benefits system. The campaign, which is as far as I can tell, the only one promoted on their website, is called ‘Benefit Thieves – it’s not if we catch you, it’s when’ which states that all ‘benefit fraud is benefit theft.’ Below are some images from the campaign.

The Sun has also started a ‘Beat the Cheat’ campaign recently and in December, Crimestoppers launched a campaign targeting benefit fraud called ‘Wel- un -Fare’, shown at the top of the post. This campaign received front page coverage in the Daily Express under the heading ‘New Blitz on Benefit Cheats’

Take up of Benefits 0r ‘Benefit Philanthropy’

On the same day that the Fraud and Error report was published, the DWP also published a report on ‘Estimate of Take-up in the benefit system’. This publication wasn’t, according to the DWP website, accompanied by a press-release. At 214 pages, it is a lengthy report but on page ii in the Executive Summary, the report notes that:

Taking all six income-related benefits together, there was between £7.52 billion and £12.31 billion left unclaimed in 2009-10; this compared to £40.56 billion that was claimed and represents take-up by expenditure of between about 77 per cent and 84 per cent. (my emphasis).

Unlike benefit fraud which costs approximately £1.2 billion, there are, to the best of my knowledge, no national campaigns or media coverage targeting what could be called ‘benefit philanthropists’ – those that do not claim or receive the £7-12 billion in benefits that they are entitled to. Incredibly, approximately 4 in ten people who are entitled to Jobseekers Allowance do not claim it. (This issue has been covered in a recent post on the Inequalities blog by Ben Blaumberg which can be found here). People who are unemployed are likely to be on some of the lowest incomes in our society and so, one would imagine, they meet the definition of the ‘most disadvantaged’ families or individuals that are mentioned 19 times in the government’s child poverty strategy.

Universal Credit is supposed to address some of the complexity in the benefits system that can put people off claiming and there are other issues around the stigmatization of claiming as well, but we shouldn’t wait until Univeral Credit is introduced to see this issue addressed. If this unclaimed money was received by the people entitled to it, it would almost certainly enter the economy and would probably not be put into savings accounts or investments. In 1909, Winston Churchill, talking about the benefits of the ‘old age pension’ said:

Nearly eight millions (pounds) of money are being sent circulating through unusual channels, long frozen by poverty in the homes of the poor, flowing through the little shops that cater to their needs, cementing again family unions which harsh fate was tearing asunder, uniting the wife to the husband and the parent to the child’

and Paul Spicker, more recently, made a similar point in a post about stimulating the economy on his blog. His post was about one-off aditional payments to certain recipients of benefits but the advantage of improving the flow of money to the poorest people remains the same. He said:

The distributive effect would be generally progressive (it could be made more progressive still if the payments are treated as taxable); and it would lead to an immediate, localised stimulus to spending that would fall roughly in proportion to the prevalence of deprivation.  And if such payments happened to do a little to alleviate child poverty, that is a side-effect I think we should be able to bear with equanimity.

A New Campaign?

Given that it looks unlikely that the popular media will start a campaign on this issue in the near future, I would like to ask if any of our readers have the capacity, resources and inclination to start or help with an on-line campaign highlighting benefit philanthropy or a new generation of ragged trousered philanthropists or something similar? I don’t have the necessary skill to do this but I’m sure it’s not a huge task for someone who knows their way around a computer and a social network site or two better than I do….

Please get in touch – or get parodying –  if you are interested…..

Best wishes,

Steve


Weekly Round up 09/03/2012

News in Brief

Welfare Reform

Wednesday saw the launch of a report to Save Child Benefit, organised by CPAG and the topic of child benefit occupied a lot of political comment this week. The Telegraph, The Spectator and The Guardian all offered views on the proposal to withdraw child benefit from higher rate taxpayers. You gov suggest that 68% of the population thought the new rules are unfair. Despite all of the column inches devoted to the subject, one of the most sensible and succinct offerings came online, via Paul Spicker’s Social Policy blog:

The main argument for cutting Child Benefit seems to be that it will help to cut the deficit. If the government wanted to increase the burden on richer families, it has the option of clawing back the benefit through the tax system. It would make more sense to tax all higher rate payers, rather than only those with children. If the government was serious about cutting the deficit, they would be raising tax. The fact they are not talking about raising tax is a strong indication that this is not really about balancing the books. They are focusing on public spending, which is quite a different issue.

Tax credits were also in the news this week with the announcement that some working families would be better off on benefits

The Welfare Reform Bill became law this week (not last week as I had reported here 7 days ago!!) and Iain Duncan Smith stated:

The Universal Credit will mean that work will pay for the first time, helping to lift people out of worklessness and the endless cycle of benefits. Whilst those people who need our help and support will know they will get it without question

The Sun has started a ‘Beat the Cheat’ campaign encouraging members of the public to telephone the benefit fraud hotline if they suspect someone of being a ‘fiddling scrounger’. An excellent post by Declan Gaffney on his L’Art Social blog and one on The Guardian Comment is Free site offered alternative views on the crack down on ‘benefit cheats’.

Child poverty stats

The Guardian and Experian released information ranking each local authority area in England against a  number of poverty indicators. Unfortuantely for the North East, each of the 2 Local Authorities in the region were placed in the top 70 (the top 20%) overall. Middlesbrough topped the list and South Tynseide also made it into the top ten. The Guardian also charted the decline of Middlesbrough using the tale of the Tuxedo Royale floating nightclub, pictured at the top of the post and well known to many in the region…

General comment

The Guardian reported on an IFS report that suggested that the poorest families were most affected by the austerity measures of the Coalition Government.

Alison Garnham, the Chief Executive of CPAG, gave an interview to Nursery World which can be found here

Signpost(s) of the week

A series of photographs in last weeks New Statesman depicting what life is like for a poor child in Britain today

The Feminisation of Poverty and the Myth of the Welfare Queen – an excellent article in the week of International Women’s Day.

Rafael Behr asked if Labour can start a different conversation about benefits

Graphic of the week

It has to be the interactive ‘poverty maps’ provided by The Guardian and Experian. Click on the maps below to take you to The Guardian website where you can see how your local area fared.


Maternal Poverty in the Age of Austerity

Two weeks ago I was privileged to speak about maternal poverty to fifty front line workers and policy officers at an event organised by the North East Child Poverty Commission and Sunderland City Council.

Most of what I said was based on two research projects, one conducted in 2008 and one in 2010. Both these projects highlighted inequalities in the way that money is shared out within households, with children tending to get the greatest share of resources and their mothers the least. As well as getting the smallest share of the money in the household, mothers are usually their family’s financial manager, and when money is short this puts huge pressure on them to balance the weekly household budget. With this pressure come feelings of guilt, stress and anxiety. When I wrote up my projects in 2010, I concluded them both by arguing that it was vital to boost family incomes, particularly through increasing maternal employment. In fact, the opposite has since happened; household incomes have gone down in real terms and women’s unemployment has increased.

Let’s consider some of the ways that family incomes are currently under pressure. Working Tax Credits have been effectively frozen since 2010, as has Child Benefit. The withdrawal rate for all tax credits went up from 39% in 2010-11 to 41% in 2011-12, so if you are working and claiming tax credits, more of your tax credits now go back to the Treasury. Since 2010, the Retail Prices Index has shown that the cost of living has risen by close to five per cent a year. As a result of all these changes a typical family with two children and one full time worker on a low wage are about £30 a week worse off in real terms; an effective income cut of about 8% since March 2010.

And if that wasn’t enough, there is also an increasing problem with women’s unemployment. The unemployment rate for women is the highest it has been for twenty five years. Things are particularly bad in the public sector, which employs more than its share of part time, low income women: of the 710,000 jobs predicted to have been lost in the public sector between 2010 and 2015, 65% were, or are being, done by women.

Calculations made by the House of Commons Library have shown that the impact of the cuts on women is stark; of £8bn of annual savings and extra taxes planned between 2010 and 2015, £6bn will come from women. The Prime Minister has claimed that when it comes to balancing the national budget the impact will be shared fairly between all sections of society. But it is very clear that women are carrying more of the burden of cuts than men, mothers are carrying more of the burden than other women, and low income mothers are carrying more of the burden than other mothers. To put it bluntly, low income mothers are among the greatest victims of the Age of Austerity. It is astounding that this injustice has received so little public comment, but as usual low income mothers are largely invisible in political discourse, except as objects of blame.

It came as no surprise to me when participants at the Maternal Poverty event told me that my research was only describing the tip of the iceberg, and that they were encountering heart-breaking cases of maternal hardship every day. Recent research by Netmums involving two thousand mothers has revealed a dire picture, with one in five mums regularly skipping meals in order to feed their children, and one in six seeking treatment for stress related illness caused by financial worries.

Things are much worse for low income mothers than they were in 2010, and they are getting worse every year. We should all be angry about this. Mothers have enough to think about when raising their children without having to think about where every penny is coming from. They deserve better from our society. Naomi Stadlen has written that ‘the whole of civilisation depends on the work of mothers’, yet it seems we expect very many of them to do this work without the resources they need. All of us who value mothers and mothering need to commit ourselves to fighting maternal poverty and to fighting the cuts that increase it. It is everyone’s responsibility.

You can see the presentation that was delivered at the event here

Chris Warburton-Brown

chrisfuzzbrown@aol.com


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