Work should free more families from poverty: here’s how we achieve it

Helen Barnard, Director, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Helen BarnardOne of our great national successes over the last couple of decades has been the sustained rise in employment among parents, especially lone parents and mothers in couples. But rising employment has been overtaken by rising in-work poverty.  Work should free families from poverty, but the majority of children in poverty now live in working families.

Five factors lock families in poverty, holding them back despite all their efforts to break free: low paid, insecure jobs; lack of suitable childcare; badly designed transport systems; weakened social security; and high housing costs. All these constraints can be removed, but it requires a coherent strategy across all parts of government as well as business and communities.

Employment was at an all time high before the pandemic struck, but four million workers were locked in poverty, with the risk of poverty having risen, especially for working parents. Parents, especially mothers, often need to work part-time or flexibly to manage childcare alongside paid work. This restricts them to lower paid jobs, often in sectors such as retail and care, where there are high levels of poverty, insecurity and less chance of training or progression to better paid work. They also face growing difficulty finding enough hours or secure and predictable work patterns.

Solving this requires several steps:

  • Grow the number of employers offering good jobs, through voluntary schemes such as the Living Wage and new Living Hours standard; social value procurement; and more effective employment rights.
  • Boost weak local economies to bring more good jobs to the places they’re most needed.
  • Provide tailored employment support to help parents to train, find and sustain better quality jobs which can be combined with caring.

A lack of affordable, flexible childcare and the cost and availability of transport also restrict the hours parents can work and the jobs they can access, especially for those working non-standard hours. Local areas need the powers and impetus to design coherent transport systems, connecting where people live with where the jobs are. Childcare system need to deliver quality, flexibility and affordability, especially to those on low incomes.

Finally, we need a strong social security system and a housing market that meets the needs of low-income families. In recent years, cuts to benefits have more than outweighed the benefits of a higher National Living Wage for many families. A lack of social rented homes crowds families into the private rented sector, where high rents, poor quality and insecurity drive people into hardship and debt and disrupt the stability of family life.

Every one of these problems can be solved. As we emerge from the pandemic and rebuild our economy, we can redesign the systems which prevent work freeing families from poverty.