Integration Strategy must focus on tackling poverty for BME families

If Government proposals are to lead to real integration, we must loosen the grip poverty places on families from black and minority ethnic (BME backgrounds), says Debbie Weekes-Bernard.

Someone from a black and minority ethnic background is twice as likely to experience poverty as someone from a white background in the UK. The Government’s developing Integration Strategy is an opportunity to right this wrong, but it currently neglects vital aspects of how to tackle poverty for people from different ethnic backgrounds – specifically how low pay and a lack of progression opportunities trap people in poverty.

Poverty creates tensions within disadvantaged communities. In times of austerity, when access to scarce resource is restricted, perceived competition among people in an area for employment, services and support can widen divisions along ethnic, religious and migration status lines.

Integration is about people feeling that they can participate in society, both socially and economically. The Government’s draft Integration Strategy – the consultation for which ended this week – has focused on the importance of creating spaces for social mixing, addressing economic disadvantage and supporting leadership. It contains some welcome proposals, such as the development of a national strategy for ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and addressing high rates of unemployment.

What’s causing poverty among BME groups?

With unemployment hitting 13% for Bangladeshi groups, and economic inactivity as high as 39% for those from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds, not being in work is a key driver of poverty. For some groups, racism and discrimination remain real barriers to success in the labour market. Indeed, the fear of racism is found to have a ‘chilling effect’ on employment rates, with Muslim women in particular less comfortable travelling across different areas to access work. JRF’s own research has shown that the worry BME women express with regards to accessing employment or services relates to concerns about safety and fear of racial harassment

However, there are other drivers keeping people from BME backgrounds in the grip of poverty: it’s the type of jobs people get, not just whether they can get them. For example, 41% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers are found in low-skilled occupations. In addition, people from BME groups cycle in and out of low-paid work more frequently than their white counterparts. The focus needs to be on supporting people to get good jobs that offer opportunities for progression. This means improving access to training (including ESOL, but not limited to it) to increase adult skills, joint working between local employers and decision-makers to create jobs growth, and increasing access to good-quality, better-paid jobs are important to addressing low-pay traps for workers from black and minority ethnic groups.  

Boosting incomes as well as tackling other drivers of poverty for all groups will reduce tensions within disadvantaged communities. Putting poverty at the centre of an integration strategy will enable more cohesive communities to flourish.