The political parties all have ideas for tackling aspects of poverty, but what we need is a comprehensive, long-term strategy, says Julia Unwin.
This week all the political parties published their manifestos. Each offers something in the quest to reduce poverty, including plans to better support people to move into work; to push up the minimum wage and promote the Living Wage; commitments to increase house building abound; and all emphasise the role of education in improving children’s life chances. But if there are some (important) common themes, there is also no sense of a roadmap.
Research by JRF and others identifies long-term factors that cause poverty in the UK:
- Polarisation in job quality, with a growth in low-skilled and high-skilled jobs, while the number of mid-skilled jobs declines. This is projected to continue in future, making it harder for people to pick out a path to progression, trapping them in low-paid jobs. Already four in five people fail to escape low pay in a ten-year period, and around one in eight low-paid people move in a cycle between low-paid jobs and spells of unemployment.
- For decades the UK has failed to build enough homes and allowed the stock of social housing to shrink. The high cost of housing in the UK plunges an extra 3.1 million people into poverty.
In recent years, these trends have been compounded by a safety net that’s fraying badly, and the rapidly rising cost of essentials, which have increased three times faster than average earnings. As a result of these trends the face of poverty in the UK is changing: it is increasingly young, working and living in the private sector.
None of the manifestos go far enough in developing a long-term strategy to sustainably reduce poverty, and tackle the underlying causes. This requires a comprehensive strategy that includes:
- improving the nature of work at the bottom end of the labour market, driving up productivity, and with it levels of pay, focusing on sectors with large numbers of low-paid, low-skilled jobs like retail, catering and care;
- commits to building at least 250,000 homes a year, at least one third of which should be a mix of social and intermediate housing;
- ensuring markets for essential goods and services deliver accessible, good-value products;
- focusing on the quality of childcare and good-quality teaching in schools to close the attainment gap;
- supporting local services that focus on early intervention to prevent long-term problems developing; and
- a tax and benefit system that makes work pay for those that can work, and supports the living standards of those that cannot.
Getting shared agreement on some of these points is not easy, especially where they conflict with politicians’ wider ideas about the most appropriate way to govern. But they do represent what the best available evidence is telling us, and should not be regarded as add-ons or things that can wait. Poverty is costly, wasteful and risky. It affects a child’s educational achievement and reduces earnings later in life. Child poverty is calculated to cost the UK £29 billion each year. These largely avoidable costs undermine the impact of more productive spending on improving infrastructure or updating skills.
Throughout 2015, JRF will be developing the UK’s first costed strategy to sustainably reduce poverty for people of all ages in the UK – and we hope to work with all the parties to put it into practice.