Monthly Archives: April 2013

Dadlessness or factlessness?

Chris Goulden from JRF has written previously about ‘the relentless rise of in-work poverty’ and it’s a phrase we use a lot when presenting to people about some of the issues to be addressed when tackling poverty.

Another issue which has seen an interesting increase since the turn of the century, and especially of late, is the percentage of couples with children who are living in poverty. Table 4.6ts on page 125 of the latest HBAI release (clicking on the table below helps to view it better) shows that the % of ‘coupled’ families accounted for 71% of all families with children living in poverty with lone parents accounting for just 29% of families with children living in poverty. In 1999/2000 the percentage of coupled families living in poverty was 57% and stayed around the figure for the next five years or so, rising steadily since then, with big increases seen in each of the last two HBAI releases. On the other hand, the percentage of  children living in poverty with lone parents has dropped from a high of around 43% in 1999/2000 to a current level of around 29%, again with sharp movements (downwards this time) in each of the last two releases.


Now, I don’t want to engage in any ‘spontaenous sociology’ here so I’m not going to make any grand claims about why this is. I’m not denying that Britain has a relatively high level of relationship breakdown when compared with some other countries, as this report shows. Nor am I suggesting that couples living together suffer some kind of financial ‘penalty’ which needs to be addressed and I’m also aware that relationship status, like poverty, is dynamic and not a static classification. I just think it’s interesting and worthy of more attention, especially in light of narratives about ‘dysfunctional families’, ‘family breakdown’ and ‘dadlessness’ that we hear so often when ‘root causes’ of poverty are discussed.

For example, Samatha Callan of the Centre for Social Justice argued in The Times last week that ‘Strong families should lead the war on poverty’ and she noted that:

Almost a decade of research at the Centre for Social Justice has confirmed beyond doubt that family breakdown lies at the heart of today’s poverty and  inequality. Most people working in schools, hospitals and other frontline  jobs don’t need to crunch the numbers, however. (my emphasis)

It would appear that the CSJ themselves felt no need to ‘crunch the numbers’ as she puts it – or indeed look at them. In short, the figures suggest that factors beyond the ‘strength’ of the family might be worth concentrating on a little bit more. Christian Guy, the Director of CSJ recently admitted that they had ‘missed in-work poverty’, for example.

Eleanor Rathbone, in 1913, suggested that “it is hard for a woman to be an efficient housewife and parent while she is living under conditions of extreme poverty … The astonishing thing to us is not that so many women fail to grapple with the problem successfully but that any succeed”. We could perhaps paraphrase this to reflect a similar view of families – it shouldn’t surprise us if some families do split up under the weight of poverty, but what is more surprising is the very high number who stick together through these times.

This view, supported by some evidence, might help to develop a more positive narrative around the role of families, parenting and poverty.

Best wishes,




“In search of the scrounger” Plus ca change…


A couple of days ago I got the book ‘In search of the scrounger’ by Alan Deacon out of the library and thought I would share a few of the paragraphs from the Introduction and Conclusions chapters. The book covers the inter-ward period and, more specificially, the 1920’s. Despite the near 100 year difference, the concerns of politicians and administrators in relation to social security sound all too familiar to current discussions around Jobcentre Plus targets, sanctions, tightened  conditionality and, of course, ‘scroungers’. All emphases are mine


“Throughout the 1920s discussion of unemployment insurance in Britain became increasingly dominated by the question of abuse. In particular, there developed a bitter controversy over the administration of a series of regulations which were collectively known as the genuinely seeking work test … Between March 1921 and March 1930 nearly three million claims for benefit were refused because the claimant had failed to meet this condition. By 1927, one claim in ten was being disallowed on the grounds that the claimant was not genuinely seeking work, and in some areas the proportion was over one third. At no time in these years did any prominent politician or government official seriously suggest that the work they were supposed to be genuinely seeking actually existed.” (p1)

” … the focus of attention must primarily be upon those who were directly responsible for the formulation of policy in this area: the Ministers and senior officials of the relevant government departments. It was they who demanded that the unemployed repeatedly demonstrate their willingness to work in a period of mass unemployment, and it is their perceptions which have to be understood and their decisions which have to be explained. Those explanations, of course, must be sought in terms of their wider economic and political aims, and the role which they perceived that the test could play in the realisation of those objectives.” (p1)

“Any assessment of the seeking work test must begin by acknowledging that its abolition in March 1930 did enable some claimants to draw benefit even though they were not looking for work at the time of their claim. It is argued, however, that such abuse was largely confined to married women and that even amongst this group the extent of the practice was considerably exaggerated by contemporaries. Certainly, there was no need to impose the test on all groups of claimants, and the campaign to ‘tighten-up’ the administration between 1925 and 1929 was totally unnecessary. The question remains, however, whether that campaign was the result of folly, malice, or both.” (p87)

“In short, the test was a sledgehammer to crack a relatiely small – and often exaggerated – nut. The use of this sledgehammer, moreover, had profound consequences for the administration of benefit, and affords a classic illustration of the impact of departmental pressure upon the ways in which local officers utilise their discretionary powers.” (p88)

“In the case of the test, the Ministry of Labour left its officers in no doubt as to what was expected of them. Their task was to detect and penalise malingering, and the accomplishment of this purpose was to override all other considerations. Olive Stevenson has recently observed that the “very existence” of powers to restrict the supplementary benefits paid to unemployed men or separated wives “tends to arouse suspicion in the minds of officers or to suggest to them that higher authority wants them to be suspicious”. In the 1920s that suspicion was deliberately fostered, and by the end of the decade the staffs of the Echanges were obsessed with the aspectre of abuse.” (pp88-89)

“(A report by John Hilton) found the interviewing officers convinced of their ability to spot a scounger – ‘a groundless and dnagerous faith’ – and often neglecting their duty to help claimants secure work. This, he believed, was a direct result of the pressures put upon them from above.” (p89)

“The seeking work test was as pernicious as it was unnecessary. It led to hundreds of thousands of unemployed men and women being arbitrarily deprived of benefits which they desperately needed, and forced many more to make repeated journeys in search of jobs they knew did not exist.” (p89)

“If the seeking work test was not prompted by malice, it was ‘tightened-up’ with a callous disregard of the hardships and injustices which resulted.” (p91)

church poverty

We have previously blogged about the increase in ‘in-work conditionality’ here and the role of the DWP in arousing suspicion of benefit fraud with their ‘Benefit thieves’ campaign here

Best wishes,


What is the ‘economic reality’?

An interesting blog post from Shaun Rafferty at JRF last week suggested, in the byline to the post, that ‘Economic reality means the Living Wage can’t be compulsory’ and then went on to argue that lobbying to make the Living Wage compulsory was ‘self-defeating’ because ‘It’s an economic reality that in the current operating environment there are many employers who genuinely couldn’t afford to pay their staff the Living Wage.’

This got me thinking about what the economic ‘reality’ is and I guess my reality is slightly different from Shaun’s (more post-modernism later). My view of the economic situation is that many people in this country ‘have never had it so good’, so to speak, but that this affluence sits quite uncomfortably alongside poverty. There are huge inequalities in wealth, but still ots of wealth in the UK as the figures below help to demonstrate.

The ONS suggested last year that household wealth in the UK had hit £10.3 trillion in 2008/10. The ONS website states that

Mean household total wealth grew from £373,000 in 2006/08 to £418,000 in 2008/10; the region with the highest mean value in 2008/10 was the South East at £562,000; the lowest was the North East where mean household total wealth was £322,000

Ruth Levitas used the table recently to highlight how the top 10% of earners received 10% more of total net income in 2009/10 than they did in 1979 whereas the bottom 10% saw their proportion drop from 4% of total net income down to 1% over the same period. So, the put it quite bluntly, the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer over the last 30 years.


More recently, the Sunday Time published its Rich List for this year which showed that ‘The wealth of the richest 1,000 has reached a record high – £450bn. The increase in wealth is significant, with 11 new billionaires being added to the list between 2012 and 2013.’

However, not all employers are in the top 10% of earners and Shaun’s point was about the operating environment, but last year it was reported in The Telegraph that business investment in the UK was slow ‘despite a corporate cash pile now worth more than £754bn’. The figure, taken from an Ernst & Young ITEM Club report, equates to 50% of gross domestic product and the report was expected to say that say that ‘while businesses are in a strong position, British households remain under intense pressure.’ (my emphasis)

And, of course, there is the issue of tax avoidance and evasion. HMRC conservatively estimate the tax gap as around £32 billion. Richard Murphy at Tax Justice UK has estimated it at potentially in excess of £120 billion. Put simply, if everyone paid the tax they were supposed and paid it on time, there would be more than enough for poverty to be eradicated in the UK and, if distributed differently, there is more than enough money to ensure that all employers could afford to pay the Living Wage to their staff.

There is almost blanket acceptance of the ‘need’ for austerity and the tough ‘operating environment’ that this creates, not least in social policy areas such as poverty and low-pay, where policy solutions have to ‘fiscally credible’. However, the figures above – from diverse sources – suggest that the economic reality might not be all it seems. Indeed, if we were to get all post-modern about it (and I said I would return to this) we might begin to think that the ‘economic reality’ was in fact a ‘hyperreality’ – a simulation or representation of reality that is difficult to distinguish from reality.



Responsible business has to start with responsible employment

This week is Business in the Community’s ‘Responsible Business Week’ and we’re very pleased to be able to help report that one large employer in the North East shares our view that responsible business practice has to start with the treatment of employees, including their pay.


Fabrick Housing Group, which manages 14,000 properties and is based in the Tees Valley but covers an area from North Tyneside to York, have recently decided to become a Living Wage employer and are pursuing accreditation for this as well. They have also been keen to promote this decision and managed to get an article in Inside Housing magazine, highlighting that other housing providers could also make the pledge. A press release from Fabrick states that they are now encouraging their suppliers to join up and sign up to become Living Wage employers

Heather Ashton, Group Director of Finance and Corporate Services for Fabrick, who recently led a BitC ‘Seeing is Believing’ visit on in-work poverty in the North East said: “This is really important to us as an employer and we want the living wage to become a real consideration for businesses that become our suppliers too. We work very closely with local suppliers and when we award a contract, we will offer them a fair price to make sure they can provide the living wage” and “Offering the living wage helps tackle poverty and reduce the massive inequalities in our society.”

The decision to become a Living Wage employer has meant that 29 people received a pay increase of around ten per cent, but the decision to apply for accreditation and to encourage suppliers to sign up as well will bring benefits to a far larger number of low paid workers.

And, we also found out that Aquila Way, another housing provider in the North East have also just become accredited Living Wage employers and we’re sure that others are about to follow as well. This means that we now have more housing providers than local authorities in the North East paying the Living Wage…

For more information about Fabrick Housing Group, contact Helen Sturdy, Communications and Media Officer, on 01642 773616.

If you’d like to know more about how to become a Living Wage employer, please click here


“Erring on the side of kindness…”


Yesterday, along with Sara Bryson from Children North East, I presented at a FUSE / ASO conference on school meals, inequality and obesity. The event was called ‘Could I have some more please, sir?’ and the focus of our presentation, which can be found by clicking the image below, was on the administration of Free School Meals (FSM) within the school environment.

Stigmatisation discrimination and the administration of FSM

The main part of the presentation focused on Sara’s work with children and young people, staff and parents from four schools in the North East as part of the ‘poverty proofing the school day’ project they are currently carrying out, with support from the North East Child Poverty Commission. This work has highlighted how children are generally very easily able to identify who receives FSM as a result of the way in which they are administered: some schools administer cash-less systems but when these break down, children receiving FSM are identified by being given a different coloured ticket to their friends who pay for their meals; some schools still collect dinner money with register at the start of the week (those receiving FSM stay in their seats while those that pay give their money to the teacher); and some schools have separate tills for FSM pupils despite having cash-less systems.

The presentation focused on the stigmatizing effect that this has on the children. These are, after all, the children of ‘scroungers’ or ‘shirkers’, the children whose parents are probably still in bed by the time school starts, still ‘sleeping off a life on benefits’. Children in receipt of FSM are easily identifiable as a result of a stigmatizing, discriminatory and divisive national policy which is often implemented in a stigmatizing, discriminatory and divisive fashion at the school level. Sara’s findings highlight the role of street-level bureaucrats as the ‘ultimate policy makers’. The work with children, involving them in the design and the carrying out of the research, has also highlighted how children are able to negotiate and resist nutritional standards in schools through the provision of alternatives, with a thriving ‘black market’ in ‘non-permitted items’ a consistent feature in secondary schools.

What is unsurprising is that this stigma is nothing new. Other presenters highlighted that the provision of FSM to certain sections of the school population pre-dates the turn of the last century and one of the slides we used in the presentation contained a quote from a study carried out by John Veit-Wilson in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1971:

‘There is no doubt that this stigma is both ascribed by widespread public values and experienced by recipients. It is bad enough to have to admit that one cannot feed one’s own children by one’s own labour – but that indignity can be kept within the family. It is worse to have to apply for public assistance in feeding them – but that indignity could perhaps be kept a secret between the family and the Local Education Authority. However, the greatest indignity is when one’s children are publicly displayed in the classroom or dining room as the children of a financial incompetent – one who cannot even earn enough to pay for their food’

And stigmatisation within public programmes has consequences. Professor Mike Miller, writing in the introduction to a book on Richard Titmuss writes:

‘Stigma threatens the person stimgatized, the programme, and the society which condones stigmatization. The stigmatized person experiences the fact of being separated from the rest of society, of being treated as someone different, marginalized, as less than others, as not worthy of the everyday exchanges and transactions that make up the community. This experience often produces a ‘spoiled identity’, a self-image which is damaged and diminished, impeding the autonomous actions of the individual.’

He goes on to argue that ‘programmes aimed at stigmatized people tend to be of low quality’ and that funding is often inadequate. We know this to be the case for FSM as many children who are living in poverty (including some who, by the DWP’s own estimates, are in the ‘deepest’ poverty) are prevented from receiving FSM as a result of the criteria which largely excludes children who have a working parent in the household. Miller argues that, in cases such as this, ‘Inhumanity becomes a social policy because it keeps the costs down.’ (p16) One might think, as Titmuss himself argued, that ‘the primary purpose of the system and the method of discrimination was, therefore deterrence (it was also an effective rationing device)’ (p153).


We ended the presentation by suggesting that the best way of addressing this situation was by providing Universal Free School Meals and Universal Breakfast Clubs. Campaigns such as the current Children’s Society ‘Fair and Square’  which aim to extend FSM to all children living in poverty run the risk of simply giving all poor children the opportunity to be singled out and stigmatized at school. Universal Free School Meal pilot projects, started by the last government, in Durham and Cornwall (with an extended FSM programme running in Newham) have suggested that the provision resulted in an increase in uptake of school meals across the board. Evidence from the qualitative case studies indicated that ‘this may be because universal provision decreases the stigma attached to taking free school meals’ (p11). There was also an increase in attainment across the board, with the largest increases being seen by children who would were previously eligible for FSM. The Impact report for the pilot project suggested that, as attendance at the schools had not been affected, ‘the increases in attainment evident in the universal pilot areas must arise as a result of improvements in productivity whilst at school’ (p9) which highlights the crucial role of food in ensuring that children are ready and able to learn.

Titmuss argued that there could be ’no answer to the problems of poverty, ethic integration, and social and educational inequalities without an infrastructure of universalist services. These are the essential foundations’ (p139) Of course, universal FSM provision would also benefit the ‘hard working families’ that the government is fond of talking about and it may also help the ‘welfare system’, which currently divides, become more binding, something which David Cameron has (sort of) expressed concern about in recent days. Universal services may also be the most efficient and cost-effective way of targeting services at those most in need. In a book entitled ‘Not Only the Poor: The Middle Classes and the Welfare State’, Goodin & Le Grand make the point that:

‘If our concern is primarily with reducing poverty and making sure everyone achieves certain minimum standards, then targeting might simply not be worth the cost. From that perspective, there would be nothing fundamentally wrong with ‘erring on the side of kindness’ and paying benefits to some people who do not strictly need them, if that is the least cost way of guaranteeing that they reach everyone who does need them.’ (pp217-218)

The philosophy of welfare : selected writings of Richard M. Titmuss, London: Allen & Unwin

Goodin, R.E. & LeGrand, J. (1987) Not Only the Poor: The Middle Classes and The Welfare State, London: Unwin Hyman

Those of you on Twitter can see some of the audience comments by searching for clicking here or searching, on Twitter, for #schoolfoodchat

We will provide a link to the FUSE website were all of the presentations can be found once they are uploaded.

We’ll also provide a link to the digital story that one of the young people involved in the project produced, exploring the entreprenurial side of food of schools.

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