‘Intergenerational worklessness’ and Communities First – real or imagined?
The London School of Economics Politics and Policy blog is well worth regularly dropping by for interesting comment and research on issues of public policy in the UK, including issues related to poverty and disadvantage.
One of the more interesting of late was this blog by Dr Lindsey Macmillan that deftly debunks the myth of intergenerational welfare dependence i.e., families where several generations of people have never worked and rely on benefits rather than wages; indeed, choose such a ‘lifestyle’ as the poverty porn and government narrative posits.
Macmillan’s PhD thesis focused on the empirical evidence that exists (or not) on the scale of the issue of intergenerational worklessness and concluded that it is massively over-emphasised. Her main findings are:
- there is only a tiny fraction of multi-generational households (MGHs) in which both generations have never worked (15,000, or 0.3% of MGHs)
- of which around a third are households where the younger generation has only left full-time education within the last 12 months (thus perhaps only a temporary state of multi-generational worklessness)
- though sons of workless fathers will be more likely to experience more time out of work than their peers with an employed father, in areas of low unemployment the labour market experiences of sons of workless fathers and sons of employed fathers will be broadly similar;
- but the experiences in high unemployment areas will vastly differ between sons of workless and employed fathers, with the son of the former spending up to 30% more of his time workless than his friend with an employed dad
Macmillan contends that a family’s experience of work and local labour market conditions are more a factor than any family pathology. Notably that such families will experience a large degree of churn in and out of the labour market over the working lives of both generations. Both generations are therefore more at risk of simultaneous worklessness but by external factors.
A fascinating conclusion, related to the third bullet point above, is the apparent role of informal networks on job-seeking. Though, Macmillan concedes, data is limited on networks in the UK, there is evidence from elsewhere about the value of informal connections. Because as the cost of looking for a job increases with unemployment – due to there being fewer jobs available; a fact that is overlooked, or (deliberately obfuscated?) by the get-on-yer-bike-and-look-for-work lobby – any ‘short cut’ that puts you within reach of a job is a massive boost. An employed friend, or even an unemployed friend of an employed dad, might be potentially useful to you in your job-seeking efforts. Simply,
“For sons with workless fathers, the combination of high unemployment rates and weaker informal connections could be driving the higher rates of labour market churn.”
This should be thought-provoking for those of us working in areas with fragile labour markets, particularly those post-industrial communities whose labour once upon a time ago would easily be mopped up by nearby large steelworks, pits or docks. Not only in terms of how interventions such as, but not exclusively, Communities First (CF) might nurture the informal connections that appear so beneficial to job-seekers in areas of unemployment, but how it should challenge some preconceptions that I have heard expressed over the years by some in CF.
It might be half-expected from the likes of Ian Duncan-Smith for whom, infamously, unemployment in Merthyr Tydfil could easily be tackled by individuals merely catching the train to Cardiff where work would appear, to him at least, be plentiful (though this conveniently overlooks the economic activity rates in the west, east and south of the city). Indeed, in her blog Macmillan links to several policy statements emanating from Duncan-Smith’s portfolio.
It might be somewhat more surprising to hear it from workers in the CF programme. Presumably a programme whose workforce prides itself in knowing its communities and getting to know the needs of individuals its supports will be cognisant of an individual’s circumstances. Perhaps not as much as it requires, though, for unless the households that comprise the 0.3% of MGHs (see bullet one) concentrate in Wales, and specifically in CF areas, there should be not as much experience of (supposed) entrenched worklessness being present in CF as I have heard some express. This is borne out by the majority of households in Wales where no-one has worked for over 6 months (and therefore eligible for support by the Lift/Esgyn programme) actually being single person households and therefore not MGHs
Perhaps it’s more a question of perception or language? Perhaps we should not take people at face value if they say their parents have never worked, thus erroneously confirming our bias? Certainly Macmillan’s findings would suggest that one’s parents might have never sustained long, even medium, term employment or forged a career in a particular field or sector. But “never worked”? Though there will be some these must be minute based on the overall data that Macmillan has researched and, therefore MGHs must be the exception rather than the rule in CF communities.