It’s popular for politicians to talk about generations of the same family that have never worked. But, as Rob MacDonald explains, research shows this is misleading.
The real problems of ‘in-work poverty’ and ‘underemployment’ are finally making some headlines, elbowing their way into the usual discourse about welfare to work and benefit dependency. Yet the idea of a culture of worklessness – values, attitudes and behaviours that prefer welfare dependency to employment – remains influential and widely held. Politicians, policy makers and welfare practitioners talk confidently of ‘three generations of families where no-one has ever worked’.
We undertook concerted, intensive fieldwork in very deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow and Middlesbrough but we were unable to locate any families with three generations who had never worked. If such families exist, they can only account for a minuscule fraction of workless people. Recent surveys suggest that less than one per cent of workless households might have two generations who have never worked. Families with three such generations will therefore be even fewer.
Next, we undertook lengthy, life history interviews with 20 families with long-term worklessness across two generations. Even locating these families was very challenging. So, what did we find?
If we cannot find a ‘culture of worklessness’ here, amongst these extreme cases of very long-term unemployed families, we are unlikely to find it anywhere. Politicians and policy-makers need to abandon theories – and policies flowing from them – that see worklessness as primarily the outcome of a culture of worklessness, held in families and passed down the generations. This returns us to our starting point. The real challenge is creating opportunities for work - jobs that help people escape from poverty and insecurity.
Poverty and Insecurity: life in low-pay, no-pay Britain is published this week by Policy Press.