Monthly Archives: September 2013

Ethnic minority workers and low paid jobs: Hiding in plain sight?

I did a post for another blog on the latest JRF research report launched today – looking at low pay, ethnic minorities and informal workplace cultures. The blog relates to a major conference on ‘Racial equality, diversity & public policy in the North East’, to be held in November 2013. More information on the conference – and the rest of the blog – can be found by clicking on the link above.
Best wishes,

North East Racial Equality Conference 2013

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation today published research looking at ‘in-work poverty, ethnicity and workplace cultures’ (Helen Barnard has also written a blog accompanying the report). In contrast to a lot of the stuff you can read about ‘cultures’ in relation to the prevalence and persistence of poverty, the report focuses on ‘informal workplace practices’ that serve to exclude some low paid workers from progressing in work or accessing opportunities to move out of low paid jobs.

Most people familiar with current poverty work in the UK will be aware that low pay and temporary insecure employment are major factors. Even where, in the language of the current government, people ‘do the right thing’ and take a full time job, the wages on offer often does not provide an income sufficient to lift the family or household out of poverty. The report notes that ‘several ethnic groups are known to have a…

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“The human balance sheet”

Over the last couple of days, three incredibly powerful blogs or reports relating to issues of welfare reform have caught my eye. This short post is intended to highlight and promote them to readers of this blog. All 3 deal with the impact on people of the welfare reforms we are currently experiencing.

In chronological order, we’ll start with Alison Stenning’s blog on the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’. Alison’s short post on the impact of the bedroom tax on relationships ends “It’s a terrible policy, one with a potentially enormous human cost. Relationships matter and we need to take care of them.”

Alison’s post inspired Tom Slater to write ano-holds barred longer blog post drawing on the work of Marc Fried and others that highlights the extensive literature on the effects of ‘displacement’. Bringing to mind the statement that ‘we’re all in it together’, Tom notes that

Once we come to understand – and communicate more effectively – that an involuntary change change of home, like bereavement, can be a devastating disruption of the meaning of life for the person or family affected, only the coldest and cruellest policy elites and government ministers would not reflect on how they might feel if the positions were reversed

Finally, this morning saw the publication of a report called ‘Real life reform’ by the Northern Housing Consortium. This project is tracking the lives of 100 households until 2015, looking at the impact of welfare reform on them as families and individuals. The first page of the report includes the quote below from a respondent:

The pure worry of what’s going to happen has caused me anxiety. I’ve been to see the doctor… I’d rather go hungry than be cold/dark. It feels like that’s where we’re heading… I feel lost

These contributions all reminded me of a powerful section I read a while ago by Professor Mike Miller in the Introduction to ‘The Philosophy of Welfare’, a collection of selected writings by Richard Titmuss. Miller writes

Reducing expenditure on a programme not only collapses its scope but also transforms its character, leading to increased pressure to bar people from gaining access to needed aid or ending rapidly such aid. Inhumanity becomes a social policy because it keeps the costs down …

Challenging reductions in programmes or advocating restorations of some cuts require more than the examination of budgets. The effects of reduced expenditures on daily functioning is the crucial issue. A social programme is what it does daily and how it does it. The political atmosphere of the 1980s is poisoning the character of programmes and eroding their contributions; the Titmuss perspective leads us to examine the delicate processes which shape the on-going experience of those who need services and benefits. The financial balance sheet has to be compared with the human balance sheet of distress, despair, isolation and stigma.

Reading the three articles I have mentioned, it is hard to not to consider and reflect on the ‘human balance sheet’ of many of the welfare reforms. Please read them if you can.


Arbitrary lines, short-term approaches and small statistical gains

Last week, the latest figures for ‘troubled families’ whose lives have been ‘turned round’ were released. The figures, showing that 14,000 families had been ‘turned round’ were accompanied by a press release, a written statement to parliament and various interviews where the achievements of the Troubled Families Programme were lauded. Eric Pickles suggested that progress had been ‘phenomenal’ and Louise Casey said

we are finally getting to grips with problems which may have persisted for generations, giving hope to people who have often been failed in the past and relief for the communities that suffered the effects of their behaviour.

The figures, the criteria for the payment-by-results framework and the hyperbolic language prompted me to revisit a couple of statements in the government’s child poverty strategy. Firstly, on p39 of the strategy it is stated that

It has been estimated that there are around 120,000 families in England with multiple problems. Turning round the lives of these families is a core element of our strategy. (original emphasis)

Secondly – and separately from this statement – the strategy criticises the previous government’s income based approach to tackling poverty thus:

… a fixation on moving families above an arbitrary line risks distorting public spending towards short-term approaches, which provide a small statistical gain, whilst failing to provide the life-transforming support that disadvantaged families need (p20)

So we can glean from these two statements that ‘turning round’ the lives of the ‘troubled families’ is central to tackling child poverty and that this government is not going to focus on ‘short-term approaches’ which might produce some nice statistics but fail to deliver long-term change.

However, none of the outcomes required under the Troubled Families Programme Financial Framework relate to tackling poverty directly. Local authorities can claim the central government funding if relevant crime/ASB/ educational attendance outcomes OR ‘continuous employment’ is found. We know that employment doesn’t always offer an income which lifts people out of poverty and it is unlikely that large numbers of adults in ‘troubled families’ will find secure, well paid employment in the current economic climate. In fact, nationally less than 5% of the families who had been ‘turned round’ found ‘continuous employment’.

The outcomes are measured over a 6 month period, after which, if either of them are achieved, the family will have been classed as ‘turned round’, central government will pay either £700 or £800 to the local authority and no further incentive to continue to work with these families. Why should it, if their lives have been ‘turned round’? In fact, if their lives take a turn for the worse, there will still be no incentive as the TFP will only pay out one per family – to achieve maximum value for money.

We know that people’s lives are complex and many more people move in and out of poverty than stay in poverty for a long time. Therefore the behaviourist focus and the relatively short-term approach (6 months) perhaps isn’t sufficiently deep enough or long enough to make claims about ‘turning lives around’. It may even ‘risk distorting public spending towards short-term approaches’. One could even call the outcomes required ‘abitrary lines’.

Many people will remember that Nick Clegg once criticised the previous government for a ‘poverty plus a pound’ approach and he stated that it ‘is simply not an ambitious enough goal’. We might deduce from the above that, if these families lives have been ‘turned round’ then tackling the poverty which is likely to affect many of them is simply not even a goal anymore.

***I am due to start a PhD in October looking at the implementation of the Troubled Families Programme. If any of you are interested, I have blogged about the TFP a couple of time recently on a blog set up for my PhD, including a longer post on the figures released last week.

Just to be clear, the views on my own blog are mine and not those of the North East Child Poverty Commission.***

Best wishes,


New Working Paper – Child Poverty & Public Health

“The foundations for virtually every aspect of human development – physical, intellectual and emotional – are laid in early childhood”

Professor Michael Marmot

“Poverty is the greatest preventable threat to health, and tackling it is fundamental to addressing health inequalities and boosting life chances”

Professors Donald Hirsch & Nick Spencer

 In July 2013, a joint letter was sent by to the Lead Members for Children’s Services and Chairs of Health and Wellbeing Boards, calling for local authorities to do everything they can to improve children’s health. The letter included a request to sign up to a ‘Better health outcomes for children and young people’ pledge.

We have today published a new Working Paper – DUBS_ILG_NECPC Working Paper 3 – from the North East Child Poverty Commission, based at the Institute for Local Governance, in Durham University Business School. The paper highlights the links between child poverty and health, provides background information on the situation in the North East and identifies ways in which local authorities can help to tackle poverty and mitigate its effects. There is much that local authorities can do to improve children’s health. Policies relating to education, employment, housing and welfare support can – and should – all have a positive impact on children’s health. However, in a report exploring the ‘prevalence, characteristics and distribution’ of child poverty in the North East, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw noted that “Most local authorities in the NE have worse child health than you would expect given their child poverty” (p2, 2009) and “on health, it is striking how many areas in the NE are doing much worse than would be expected given their material well-being rankings” (p29). The paper draws on research that argues that attempts to tackle health inequalities and improve the health of disadvantaged communities ‘needs to move beyond ‘bad behaviours” (Katikreddi et al 2013)

As well as the information and resources provided in the Working Paper and the Appendix to the joint letter, further resources and information relating to public health can be found on the FUSE website  (FUSE is the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health in the North East) and the Wolfson Research Institute for Health & Wellbeing, based at Durham University. The Wolfson Research Institute has a specific Research Theme of Tomorrow’s Healthy Adults which focuses on children and young adults, specifically targeting issues that will determine their long-term health and wellbeing’.

If you have any questions about the Working Paper, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Best wishes,


A responsible approach?

Today sees the publication of a National Audit Office report into Universal Credit. Many of the morning’s newspapers are carrying this story and, earlier this week, the Telegraph featured an interview with Howard Shiplee, the Director-General for Universal Credit in which he acknowledged there had been a number of ‘missteps’ alog the way. This contrasts with earlier public statements by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron who have previously failed to acknowledge any difficulties. The Prime Minister, in November last year, apparently told Parliament that ‘Universal Credit is on time and on budget’.

There is already lots of media coverage around this issue so I’ll try not to repeat much of it, but a couple of lines in an article in The Guardian yesterday caught my attention. Here they are:

The DWP said it was misleading to characterise money already spent as having gone to waste. “No one has said we’re starting again … we’re looking at enhancing not replacing [systems],” it said.

It said it did not recognise the £350m figure being lost in savings due to the slower roll out of the programme.

A DWP spokesperson later added: “The early roll-out of Universal Credit is allowing us to develop the new benefit in a safe and controlled way. This is the responsible approach.

I thought this was really interesting because the current government have always been very quick to dismiss the child poverty approach of the previous government as a waste of money. Look at the following quotes from the foreword,(written by Iain Duncan Smith) to the government’s Child Poverty Strategy:

Good intentions failed to translate into effective policies.

By transferring cash to make good on short-term relative income effects they entrenched benefit dependency, delivering both poor outcomes for society and a poor return for the taxpayer

Limited social returns were delivered despite significant income transfers

With a focus on fairness and personal responsibility, not cash handouts, this is the responsible choice in this fiscal climate.

we believe that the aims of the Child Poverty Act – to dramatically reduce levels of child poverty in the UK – will not be achieved through simply throwing money at the perceived symptoms. This approach has been exhausted, not only failing to turn the tide on income poverty, but worse still, exacerbating the problem by suppressing incentives to work and keeping families in cycles of entrenched deprivation.

It is now more important than ever to secure optimum returns on investment spending.

Just to put things into a bit of context, the last government missed their own target of cutting child poverty by half by 2010-11. However, during their term of office they still managed to reduce the number of children living in poverty by around 1 million, which, as a taxpayer, I would like to suggest was not a ‘poor return’ and nor do I believe that the last government ‘simply threw money’ at the problem. The current government, on the other hand, are likely to preside over an increase in the numbers of children living in poverty to 2015-16, the term of this parliament, of around 300,000, and it is predicted that the ‘direct impact of the current government’s announced reforms to personal tax and benefit policy will be to increase relative poverty among children by 200,000’

The point I’m trying to emphasise is that, when it suits them, this government (perhaps all politicians) are more than happy to characterise something that was making (slower than expected) progress as an ‘exhausted’ approach that failed and actually made things worse. But, when the shoe is on the other foot and something stands accused of not making planned progress, it is characterised as developing in a ‘safe and controlled way’ and the ‘responsible approach’ is to stick with it. In fact, the Press Release of the report by the NAO contains a section which, whilst focusing on Universal Credit, could easily be taken to represent the current approach to tackling poverty

The Department took risks to try to meet the short timescale and used a new project management approach which it had never before used on a programme of this size and complexity. It was unable to explain how it originally decided on its ambitious plans or evaluated their feasibility.

But then, belief, not evidence, is what it’s all about……

Best wishes,


New Working Paper – Using the evidence base on poverty

Today sees the publication of a new Working Paper from the North East Child Poverty Commission. The paper looks at the use, misuse and occasional ignorance of evidence in child poverty policy, drawing on over a century of social scientific research around this issue in the UK.

Poverty is an issue that has been examined for over 100 years in the U.K. and as Professor David Gordon has argued, ‘not a single study has ever found any large group of people/households with any behaviours that could be ascribed to a culture or genetics of poverty’ (2011). Despite this available evidence, the current government strategy for tackling poverty focuses primarily on changing individual or familial behaviours.

Some local authorities adhere closely to this narrative, despite a suggested focus on ‘evidence-based policy’ which should rule out many of the activities being proposed. For example, the North East Child Poverty Commission report ‘Local authorities, local duties & local action’ found that some local authorities identified ‘low aspirations’ and ‘cultures of worklessness’ as major barriers to people escaping poverty despite recent, accessible evidence from researchers in the North East which suggested alternative forms of action might be more beneficial.

The paper draws a dstinction between social scientific and empirical evidence and evidence produced by organisations with close links to politicians, which fly in the face of facts. It is, perhaps, perticularly timely given the recent publication of a report on education by an ‘independent’ think-tank which yesterday drew criticism from Helen Barnard of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation who argued that

‘Sensationalist stories of parents who cannot be bothered to toilet train children make for good headlines; they have little to do with the reality of closing the attainment gap.’

Kind regards,


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