In-work poverty in Britain hits record high

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In imperialist Britain, the sixth richest country in the world, the number of people afflicted by in-work poverty has hit a record high. One in every eight workers, 12%, lives in poverty, exposing as lies six years of cynical pledges from the Conservative Party to ‘restore the link between hard work and reward’. The government’s real agenda has been to divide and rule by attempting to drive a wedge between ‘strivers’ and ‘scroungers’. But as an annual state of the nation report conclusively shows, for the poorest sections of the working class in Britain, the working and the unemployed are equally tormented by the rule of capital. Barnaby Philips reports.

Published on 7 December 2016, the Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2016 report,* written by the New Policy Institute on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, revealed that the number of working people living in poverty in 2015 increased to 7.4 million, up from 6.3 million in 2010. This represents a record high of 55% of the overall 13.5 million of the population living below the official poverty line. The vast majority – four-fifths – of the adults in working households are employed, some 3.8 million workers. The remaining fifth predominantly look after children.

While the overall proportion of the country living in poverty ‘remained flat’ at 21%, given that Britain’s population grew from 60 million to 65 million, poverty is afflicting approximately 800,000 more people than at start of the decade.

The number in workless or retired families in poverty has fallen by half a million to 6.1 million, but behind the government’s bragging about the ‘highest ever levels of working-age employment’ (74.5%), in-work poverty has become common in the most restructured areas of the labour market, predominantly impacting younger workers, the self-employed and part-time employees. People are being shuffled from one form of poverty to another in an attempt to mask dire employment opportunities.

Increasingly, rough sleepers are in-work, too. Recent stories in the press include Amazon workers in Scotland camping near their regional warehouse because they cannot afford commuting costs (The Independent, 10 December). In London, dozens of workers on poverty pay and zero-hour contracts are shacking up between shifts in warehouse units that have been converted into emergency night shelters because they have nowhere else to go (The Guardian, 20 December).

Underemployment, though down, remains above its 2009 level and half of the decrease was accounted for by unemployment. Far from the government’s portrayal of near-full employment, in the first half of 2016 there were 2.2 million ‘inactive’ people who would like to work, and 1.2 million part-time workers who were trying to find a full-time job; 1.65 million people, 6% of the workforce, were employed on a temporary contract. The number of temporary workers who could not find a permanent job despite trying increased by 160,000. Around 720,000 workers, 3%, were on zero-hour contracts.

Disabled and impoverished

The study also found ‘an alarming concentration of poverty among families with a disabled member’. Once account is taken of the higher costs faced by those who are disabled, half of poor people in Britain are either themselves disabled or live with a disabled person. Similarly, 55% of poor children live with a disabled adult. Of the 5.3 million ‘informal’ or unpaid carers in Britain, 1.2 million live in poverty. The majority of carers in poverty are of working age (85%) and caring for someone other than their spouse (70%). That ‘the poverty rate increased for working-age people as the hours of care they provided increased’ shows that the hardest working people under capitalism are in fact the worst paid.

The vicious media attacks on behalf of the government against ‘scroungers’ or ‘shirkers’ – the 45% of poor families which are workless – are in reality made up of pensioners (12%); families with disabled members (17%); lone parent families (6%); and 11% in other circumstances, such as workless single adults. Income in the poorest fifth of households remains lower than a decade ago. Of the poorest fifth of the country, 69% have no savings whatsoever, an increase from 58% in 2005/06.

Accumulated misery

The report makes the usual ‘strategic’ recommendations for combatting poverty, such as ‘delivering an effective benefits system’ while recognising that the government is making sure that it increasingly does not cover the full cost of essentials for those on low incomes. Overall in 2015, state benefits were ‘less targeted at the bottom of the income distribution than they have been at any time since the early 1980s’. It is clear that the policy of this millionaire government is to hammer the poor.

Other vague recommendations include ‘boosting income and reducing costs’; ‘improving education and raising skills’; ‘strengthening families and communities’; ‘promoting economic growth that can benefit everyone’. This fails to confront the root of the problem: the fact that capitalism perpetuates poverty. The accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time the accumulation of misery at the opposite pole, to paraphrase Marx. In any case, capitalism’s inevitable profitability crisis is the underlying driving force behind austerity and the boom in low-paid, insecure work. (See FRFI 254: The gig economy: new name for old exploitation.) While the government has attempted to use this to claim near-full employment, the Bank of England has conceded that the 2010s is the first ‘lost decade’ in Britain since the 1860s, its data showing that not even the Great Depression or two world wars produced a greater fall in real wages – down 10.4% since 2008.

The report follows governmental guidelines which also need to be challenged. Poverty is defined as ‘lacking the resources to fully participate in society’. A household though is only deemed to be poor when its annual income is 60% or below the median – unchanged against 2010 at £25,600. The report concedes that ‘no single measure can fully capture every facet of poverty’. When fluctuations in income and circumstances are taken into account, 33% of the population lived under the poverty line for some period of time between 2011 and 2014. About 6.5 million people are trapped in ‘persistent poverty’ (defined as having been in poverty for the past year and two of the previous three years) but those who escape it temporarily are merely escaping an arbitrary threshold. Hardship hardly disappears when income flickers to 61% of the median. That 53% of the country’s poorest fifth in 2014 had been in a higher income group three years before shows how insecure life above the poverty line is, too.

Official poverty figures are also held down by deaths – by the unaccounted number of people who have died as a result of poverty. Take for example the fact that Britain’s registered suicide rates have risen since 2008, according to the Office for National Statistics, up from 10.0 deaths per 100,000 of the population to 11.1 in 2013 and 10.8 in 2014. According to the Health and Social Care Information Centre, nearly half of people in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) have attempted suicide. Someone contacts the Samaritans for help every six seconds. Meanwhile, by the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) own admission, 90 people every month are dying after being declared fit for work. The number of people who die as a result of the mental and physical disabilities capitalism creates and reproduces remains unrecorded. Capital is happy to let those at the end of an abundant supply of labour die off. On 13 December 2016, The Times carried a story conveniently blaming ‘a fifth of the population’ for the vast majority of crime, obesity, and fatherless families. ‘What’s more, scientists say they can identify this troublesome group at the age of three.’ Out of a ‘scientific’ 38-year study, a 45-minute test has been developed ‘to predict “with considerable accuracy” who would go on to be the greatest burden on the state’ based on ‘information about deprivation and maltreatment’. This is no more than the pseudo-science of eugenics, the ideological backdrop to the coming round of attacks on the poor.

Slowing economic growth and the repercussions of Brexit will mean none of the report’s recommendations will be taken up. With further cuts to welfare and to the NHS in mental health and disability services being implemented, the poorest and most vulnerable people have been savagely targeted. The government will continue to manipulate employment figures as poverty continues to rise in the years ahead, but it cannot hide the reality from the working class that, for an increasing number of people in Britain, capitalism offers no way out of poverty.

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* www.jrf.org.uk/report/monitoring-poverty-and-social-exclusion-2016