Why working parents are struggling to repel the rising tide of poverty

Child poverty family

Paul Brook tells the stories behind the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s UK Poverty 2018 report

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4th December 2018 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

Our new report shows that more than half of people in poverty in the UK live in a family where at least one person is in paid work

Hazel has found that her income is never enough for her and her two teenage sons to have a decent quality of life.

“I have been on my own with the boys since their dad walked out when they were three and one,” she said. “Since then I’ve struggled either on benefits or working, but with just one income it’s never enough. I have worked full-time for a good wage and then I have worked part-time for minimum wage and there hasn’t been much difference.

“When working full-time I didn’t get tax credits or housing benefit and had to live on my wage just, then working part-time on minimum wage means I get a wee top up of tax credits, but it leaves me with no more than previously. For me to get a decent quality of life, I would really need to be earning a much higher wage."

Sue and Beckie both experienced poverty after relationship breakdowns, and it was poverty that pulled them into mental health problems.

Paul Brook

Paul Brook

“Losing my job, losing my home, losing my marriage were all hard but it was poverty that sent me to the brink of suicide,” says Sue, a former civil service manager who now works part-time for a mental health charity in Inverness.

Sue explains how the high costs of essentials contributed to her situation.

“I had to run a car. If I didn’t have fuel in the car I couldn’t get the children to school. You need a car in a rural community – there was one bus a week, on a Thursday. I had to heat the flat and in a Highland winter it was costing me in excess of £80 per week to feed the token meter. I was so broke. I had childminding costs and arrangements that were completely unsustainable in the long term. I ended up having to give up my job.”

In this clip, Sue talks about how her electricity key came to symbolise the stress and anxiety of poverty.

Beckie’s story shows how a combination of circumstances can drag people into poverty.

“I had my son when I was quite young and was living with my parents,” she said. “But my relationship with my parents started breaking down and I moved to a hostel for eight months before getting my house. The company I worked for went into liquidation and I got redundancy and could afford things for my child. When that ran out, it hit hard. That’s when I started losing who I was. My confidence went."

Beckie now works 32 hours a week as a scheme manager for Anchor Housing.

“I really enjoy my role,” she said.” It can be quite demanding at times but I enjoy the challenges it brings as it increases my confidence and knowledge. I have also been able to complete my level 3 housing qualification which was funded by Anchor and looking to complete my level 5 in the next year.

“Things changed for me when I took part in a fashion project organised by my housing provider, Leeds Federated. At a point in my life where I had lost all self-confidence, I had to really push myself to get involved. During the project I worked closely with Leeds Federated’s community development manager, who identified that all I needed was an opportunity, a chance to get my life back on track, a chance to be somebody again, a chance to enjoy life. I was asked if I wanted to join Leeds Federated voluntarily to gain confidence in finding work. I was so happy to be given this opportunity that I started working voluntarily almost straight away and did so for six months.”

Beckie’s work as a volunteer gave her the break she needed, and led to a paid role.

Sue also recognises the vital step volunteering can play in helping people back into work.

“There’s something about volunteering and how rewarding that can be. It’s good for building confidence. But you have to balance volunteering with the conditionality of Universal Credit. There’s not always recognition of the stepping stone volunteering can be into paid work.”

What would help to loosen poverty's grip?

Research and experience both point to three main things that could be done to help those in poverty:

- reduce housing costs for renters
- strengthen the support offered by the social security system
- open up opportunities for better-paid employment.

Sue, Hazel and Beckie have some suggestions for what could help them and many other people in similar situations.

Sue: “I think that we need to return to a system of social security rather than this judgmental term of ‘welfare’. We need to see a system of support which recognises that people do get sick, relationships end, people lose jobs and stop treating it as a stick to beat folks with. Focusing on how to help people weather their crisis would help, and changing the focus of DWP and giving them new targets, which are supportive of people rather than about punishment. You can’t sanction people into work.”

Hazel: “I think the government needs to increase the benefits to match the rate of inflation and give everyone the opportunity to a decent quality of life. The minimum wage needs to be more like the Living Wage – which might mean some families aren’t needing tax credits to top up their income – and make working worth it.”

Beckie: “It is important that solutions to poverty are based on facts and individuals’ experiences. Only then will we find solutions that will actually work and make a difference to people living in poverty. How can you be sure that putting plans in place are going to work if you are not aware of the problems? We need to find out what the real struggles are and where the real help can be placed. If voices of the people living in poverty were heard and action was taken based on these real-life scenarios and conditions then maybe it would give them hope, ambition, encouragement, opportunities and happiness that everyone deserves.”

Paul Brook is chief copywriter for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation