The challenge of change for low-income families

30 Jan

I was listening to the Prime Minister on the Today programme the other day, outlining the decision to continue to maintain pensioner benefits, whilst reducing the welfare budget elsewhere. He said that this was done in recognition of the fact that pensioners cannot easily adjust their circumstances and that it would be unfair to expect this of them. Therefore cuts to benefit expenditure must be found elsewhere, amongst the younger population of working age. I really wonder how much thought has been put into the idea that changing one’s circumstances is easier here.

For a start, there is the well-worn point that many of those in receipt of benefits are in fact employed already – on low wages that mean they need the additional support of social security to make ends meet. Many are working long hours for little pay, leaving precious little time to search for a better opportunity; many are tied to their local area by community, their children’s schools, travel-to-work costs. In a scenario where costs increase, and/or where the value of benefits decreases relative to other costs, it is possible to make work not pay – the opposite of policymakers’ aims. And if you are out of work and struggling as it is, cuts in benefits will make everyday living harder, and may compel decisions which remove you from networks of support. If rising costs and cuts in benefits mean that unemployed parents or low-income working families move house in search of cheaper rent, they may lose a great deal in terms of community support, their children’s education, the jobs they have, or future opportunities.

David Cameron seems to think that changing your circumstances in early and mid-adulthood is fair to expect. This might well be so if you have a good education and employment record, and a range of marketable skills, but for many of those in need of additional support, this may not be so. Say you’ve had time out of the workforce to raise children and find that your skills no longer meet labour market requirements; say you don’t have a partner who can easily pick up your children from school so that you can take on conventional working hours. Say the reason that you need housing benefit as a young person is because you have no family to fall back on, and earn too little to afford city rents without support. Say you’ve never gained qualifications, or have disabled or elderly relatives who rely on you for care. None of these circumstances make it easy to change your life. The policy of freezing or cutting working-age benefits is likely to mean that more people seek drastic solutions to make ends meet: so they take on second and third jobs which impact on their health and their families’ ability to function; they move house and lose relationships or jobs; they turn to money lenders charging high rates of interest.

None of these scenarios is cost-free. From a position of economic security and social and educational capital, it is easy perhaps for politicians and others to underestimate the challenges of change for less advantaged families. If it is true that it is not fair to expect pensioners to be able to change their circumstances easily – and that seems eminently reasonable – why is that less true for families of younger adults and children? When wages have stagnated (according to reports today we still take home less than in 2001) , when affordable, high-quality childcare is only patchily available, and when relatively few people under 35 can manage to buy their own home, how easy is it to transform your life? For many of working age it would seem that plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose – and the thing which stays the same is the struggle to make ends meet, and a lack of recognition of how hard that can often be.




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