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Stronger together: the indispensable role of human relationships in economic security

Community is the oldest form of 'welfare' we have - and despite the banging of saucepans for the NHS and street parties for the jubilee, in Britain it is looking decidedly frail.

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No person is an island. As social beings, the state of our relationships with those around us are a huge part of our security or its opposite.

So relationships matter in themselves. But as well as their direct, constitutive contribution to our sense of safety, they are a crucial prophylactic to the many other ways in which humans can end up exposed. This link is especially important to JRF, because it believes the lens of economic insecurity is a useful one through which to view many contemporary social evils. In that context, the purpose of this short piece is to summarise what the evidence, in official statistics and elsewhere, has to say about the strength of the relationships in the community and the home, as well as offering a few brief reflections on the links between these bonds and financial exposure.

Most obviously, in stark material terms, families pool resources in ways which ensure individuals against catastrophic losses. Losing your job will not be quite as painful for someone with a stalwart spouse to say: “don’t worry, dear, we’ll eke things out on my wage until you find another.” But over generations, deep social trends tended to leave more Britons exposed on this count, with a long drift towards ever-smaller households over the late 20th century. From this we emerged, in particular, with a relatively high proportion of children living with single parents (around 22%, against OECD and EU averages of around 17%) whose economic fate will often turn on the fortunes of just one adult. Interestingly, though, both these developments have levelled off in the 21st century - the proportion of single-person homes was unchanged between 2000 and 2020, and the share of lone parents in the overall mix actually slipped back. On these indicators, then, economic exposure is widespread, but not necessarily rising.

Still, there is one other thing worth keeping an eye on in terms of potential family fragility: in line with many other OECD countries, more adults are now cohabiting without being married: the ONS’s tally of such households and the number of children in such households have more than doubled over the last generation. Does this matter for security? As a parent cohabiting in a very long-term unmarried relationship myself, my personal prejudice is to say not, and assume that the trend is less about declining commitment than declining social pressure to wed. But others can point to tracking surveys which suggest unmarried cohabitations are more likely to dissolve in a given period than married ones. The argument then becomes whether or not that differential is dwindling over time, in line with the changing social meaning of marriage. For anyone interested in economic insecurity, this looks like an important avenue for more research.

Moving beyond the nuclear family, other relations and trusted friends also bail each other out in emergencies, whether with financial loans or gifts or simply a helping practical hand. But we also need to consider more subtle effects of what, in the jargon, is referred to as 'social capital'. Our relationships - outside of the home, as well as within it - get under our skin, and check (or exacerbate) our vulnerability to all sorts of problems with physical and mental health which can, in turn, translate into difficulties with work and associated economic vulnerability.

A recent over-view of myriad epidemiological studies concluded there 'is good evidence to suggest that ‘social capital’ predicts better mental and physical health'. More robust health could flow directly into greater economic security: one analysis looked across Europe at the geographical level, and found that stronger community connections are associated with a reduced risk of unemployment. Meanwhile another, focused on the Swedish healthcare sector, suggested a more direct connection between strong social connections and more sustainable jobs: workplaces blessed with such links between colleagues operated more effectively in measurable ways.

By contrast with the mixed picture that we see on relationships inside the home, when we look at connections beyond it, growing problems abound. Starting with the extended family, official statistics record a proportional 6% drop in the share of parents providing help to their adult children, and a 15% drop in the proportion receiving help from their adult children - and this, remember, is during the austerity years for both children’s services and elderly care, so a period during which need on both sides would have been likely to increase. The figures quoted here compare 2017/18 with earliest available figures, for 2011/12; with all the indicators in the rest of this piece we will chart movement 'over the 2010s' insofar as possible, by comparing the latest data highlighted in the ONS dashboard of 'social capital' indicators against the baseline of 2010, when the numbers go back that far, or the earliest available data where not.

Moving to broader social connections, we see many similarly depressing trends. As well as small suggestive decrease in the proportion of us who feel we would have a friend, relative or someone else we 'could rely on' if we 'had a big problem', and (not shown on the chart) a seeming up-tick in self-reported loneliness too, a likely cause of insecurity. Meanwhile, there are larger (and, ONS suggests, statistically significant) declines in the proportion of us who meet regularly with friends, who stop and talk to neighbours and who report being members of a broad range of specific associations (ranging from faith organisations to trade unions) which bring people together.

SOURCE: ONS social capital headline indicators, February 2020 release.

NOTES: figures shown are proportional decline in population shares, comparing the latest data reported in the February 2020 release with the earliest data included relating to the 2010s. For exact wording and derivation of each indicator see ONS.

Overall, it is hard to avoid a bleak conclusion. At the dawn of the 2010s - an austerity decade in which cutbacks saw the state do less than previously to cushion individual misfortune - David Cameron suggested that 'the Big Society' could rush in to fill the gaps. Instead, however, on these measures at least it looks like the mood was insular, and Britons were increasingly inclined to hunker down and concentrate on their own security.

Are there caveats to this grim conclusion? Absolutely. For one thing there are a few indicators where things have not deteriorated, or even got better: the proportion reporting at least one close friend has edged up. Volunteering had looked to be recovering with the economy in the early 2010s - although it has since dived in more recent data. Some of the measures of trust in fellow citizens (unlike that in the Government) have held up. We are 'engaging' more on social media, although this is arguably one form of connection which is more liable to engender anxiety than security.

The other caveats concern important things we don’t yet know - things which JRF is likely to want to be involved in uncovering. In particular, to what extent is the apparent fraying of community life suggested by the official statistics concentrated on particular groups. One thorough-going analysis of community involvement during the 2008/9 recession established an overall decline which was especially intense in more depressed regions and poorer communities, a recipe for a vicious cycle of insecurity if ever there was one. It is important to ask whether the same is happening again, but since then, some of the data has been discontinued. We could usefully explore whether the cut-price replacement surveys are good enough to let us explore where, precisely, community links are fraying. If not, then we might consider supporting a new survey or a supplement.

Last but not least, we must watch the upcoming release of all these community indicators with special interest. The pandemic engendered a new community spirit, as we all banged our saucepans for the NHS, volunteers rushed forward to help with vaccinations, and mutual aid groups popped up to get food and medicine to vulnerable people everywhere. In parallel, however, the country was gripped by twin tsunamis of medical and economic anxiety, and many locked-down citizens forgot their ordinary ways of socialising and became unhealthily accustomed to isolation.

Almost certainly, then, there will be big effects flowing in both directions. The question is which will predominate. We must await the next two years’ of data for the answer to that. We will then see whether our communities were up to safeguarding their citizens in our hour of exposure - and if not, turn our minds to what we can do to draw a line under an age of insecurity.