Trapped in a ‘low-pay–no-pay’ cycle of work

17 November 2010

New research published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that unemployed people have a strong work ethic, actively look for work, and are prepared to take jobs even when they are poor quality.

In their interviews with people from Middlesbrough, the Teesside University research team found increasing numbers of people facing poverty as they moved from one short-term job to another, but often choosing not to claim benefits and missing out on the support they need. The report's findings challenge popular ideas about 'cultures of welfare dependency'. The research showed:

  • People remained strongly motivated to work despite moving in and out of jobs over many years, and despite the potential for them to have felt, at times, that they could be 'better off on benefits'.
  • The poor quality of available employment, along with lack of flexible support to help people take jobs, caused real difficulties.
  • People would take on work despite it offering poor pay, terms and conditions.
  • The low-pay, no-pay issue didn’t just affect younger workers, nor was it caused by the recession, but had been experienced by people of all ages over many years.
  • While low qualifications played a role, people who had been in higher education and had qualifications were also affected.

Casualisation and the increasing insecurity of available jobs were key factors behind the frequent failure of work to provide a stepping stone to better employment, meaning the low-pay, no-pay cycle extended to middle-aged workers, as well as younger adults.

Report author, Professor Tracy Shildrick said:

Essentially we found that financial necessity, a desire to work and the lack of better opportunities led people to take poor quality, temporary jobs that trapped them in long-term insecurity and poverty. For many this led to lasting and sometimes severe, economic hardship.

The report also found that family and friends were the main route to finding jobs, with support offered by statutory and voluntary sector agencies to help people into work often limited, patchy and sometimes unhelpful. Most agencies appeared more geared to helping longer-term unemployed people and catered less for those moving in and out of work with shorter periods of unemployment.For these reasons, employment had not provided a route out of poverty for the interviewees. They also experienced debt as a major problem, sometimes incurred as a direct consequence of taking a low-paid and short-term job, adding to their difficulties.

Because important but lower-level jobs are likely to remain abundant in the UK economy, the report stresses the importance of improving the pay and quality of these jobs as well as providing more support for the 'missing workless' - those who repeatedly churn between jobs and unemployment without claiming benefits, or getting the support they need to progress.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation Chief Executive, Julia Unwin CBE, said:

We know the employment situation threatens to become increasingly harsh in the years to come. This research highlights the importance of recognising that while work can and should help people out of poverty, in too many cases it does not. For those with low pay or just benefits, there must be constructive support and recognition of the genuine difficulties to be addressed if we are going to see poverty tackled effectively. For work to be the route out of poverty, it needs to pay properly, to provide opportunities for progression and to give stability.”

Quotes from the report:

I don't like it at all. I feel, like, suffocated; that they are waiting for me to do something. I just hate it. I'm an independent person. I don't like relying on benefits. I just hate it.” Interviewee describing claiming benefits.

The management, they just don’t care about the staff. They treat you like robots … If you went over and said 'I've cut my finger off', they’d just say 'make sure you don't get any blood on the food'. That’s what they were like." Interviewee describing their work experience.

Work? Very important, just to get out the house and that. There’s nowt worse than not working. It’s so depressing. It’s awful, just awful. Like I say, when I’m working I’m a totally different lad, totally different and when I'm not working I’m just down… It’s hard to explain. It’s just it does put you on this totally, like, puts you on a proper depressing mode.” 43-year-old interviewee explains the importance of work to him.

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