E&S19: the rising tide of poverty

11 July 2019

We all know that work should be a reliable route out of poverty. It isn’t right that over 4 million workers have been caught up in the rising tide of poverty; but we can turn the tide.

As a nation we can be rightly proud of our achievements: weathering a deep recession without large job losses; recovering to have record employment rates; and raising the minimum wage to radically reduce extreme low pay.  But these have not turned the tide of in-work poverty. More workers are trapped in impossible situations – facing the constant stress of struggling to make ends meet, having to cut back on the food budget to afford new shoes for growing feet, or cover rising fuel bills and bus fares. Families are hemmed in by low paid and insecure work, expensive and unreliable public transport, high rents and childcare bills that eat into their earnings.

Just getting people into a job is no longer enough. Most low paid workers get trapped, with little chance for training or moving up to better work. Too many workers feel that they are stuck on a hamster wheel – running and running but never getting anywhere.

But we can change this by  redesigning our employment services and labour markets to loosen the grip of poverty.

  1. Progression is vital and it requires more than improving people’s skills and employability. There also has to be a better job for people to move into.

We should invest in employment services that are designed to help workers progress, which means models that provide effective support to both employees and businesses.  These need to be linked to local industrial strategies which focus on growth that raises the living standards of local people locked in poverty. We can look to examples like San Antonio in Texas. They identified the sectors most likely to produce good jobs with defined careers paths and used tailored training, skills and support programmes to connect them with low income workers.

  1. We need a step change in the availability of good quality part-time jobs.

Mothers working part-time face some of the biggest challenges in progressing out of low pay. The work of Timewise with retailers such as Pets At Home shows that businesses can design jobs which offer progression routes for part-time workers. But the vast majority of jobs which pay over £20 000 a year aren’t advertised as being willing to consider flexible working, making it hard for parents and carers to progress by moving employer, in case they  lose the flexibility that makes life manageable.

We all want to see full employment that sets people free from poverty. To achieve it we need to modernise employment services, so they are truly equipped to help workers progress; support and challenge businesses to redesign jobs and help low paid staff move on; and demand local industrial strategies that deliver inclusive growth.


Helen Barnard is deputy director of policy and partnerships at Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Employment and Skills Convention – 10 July 2019 #EmploymentSkills19

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