Why Poverty Matters

Working age adults without children are now at a higher risk of poverty than 10 years ago and while living in a ‘workless’ household increases your risk of poverty by more than four times, across the UK, there has been a gradual shift towards in-work poverty.

In February I was asked by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) to attend the launch of its 2018 Poverty in Northern Ireland report and take part in a panel discussion as part of the launch event. I accepted and did some background reading around the topic in preparation. It was sobering stuff. 370,000 people here live in poverty – a higher proportion of the population than in Scotland, but lower than England and Wales.

Working age adults without children are now at a higher risk of poverty than 10 years ago and while living in a ‘workless’ household increases your risk of poverty by more than four times, across the UK, there has been a gradual shift towards in-work poverty.

We’ve been doing some work with JRF around engaging companies on this agenda, hence my invitation. It started last June when we invited the CEOs of some of our most well-known companies to attend a ‘Seeing is Believing’ (SIB) visit. We took them to three different community-based projects to see how poverty is affecting people in those communities and what’s being done to help. The plan following the SIB, was to identify ways that businesses can help address the plethora of issues that either contribute to or result from poverty. In truth, it didn’t turn out to be just as simple as that.

What was presented to us at the different projects we visited in north, west and south Belfast was a very complex picture. It was a picture of interdependent societal needs and problems that almost overwhelmed us. Everyone needed some time to go away, digest and think about what they could usefully and practically do to make an impact. I think it also made people feel uncomfortable. Facing the fact that, here in Northern Ireland in the 21st century, there are people who sometimes have to choose between feeding their family and heating their homes is hard to comprehend. Particularly when, as a senior business person, your own reality is very different indeed.

Since then, further discussions have led to a project is being developed to help tackle ‘holiday hunger’, by giving children access to digital skills training from Allstate NI during the holidays, and also ensuring they get a nutritious meal while they’re there. Given that educational attainment is acknowledged as the biggest driver of future poverty, we’re also exploring how to scale up some of our existing projects that focus on developing skills and raising aspirations and attainment.

Initiatives like these have some potential to help reduce poverty, but it’s not enough. What hasn’t been properly addressed with companies is the fact that, although employment is certainly recognised as the best way for someone to avoid poverty, there are conditions attached. The work needs to be ‘good’. It needs to be fairly (and well) paid. It needs to be secure and structured. There needs to be a path for progression and skills development. Unfortunately, that is not the case with all employment.

Business in the Community has developed an Action Plan template to help employers ensure they are offering ‘good work for all’. It provides a framework and guidelines for ensuring a practical approach to employing people in a responsible way that will help them avoid poverty.

A growth in low paid, unstable jobs in recent years has resulted in our economy effectively locking people in to poverty. This is a difficult issue to tackle, but an important piece of work carried out by the Frameworks Institute in partnership with JRF suggests that it’s not impossible. Half the battle is how we frame poverty and what we do to engage public opinion and support.

There needs to be a better understanding of how poverty happens, why tackling it matters and how we can start making changes to inspire a belief that poverty CAN be solved.

That means facing some difficult truths. Employers need to be prepared to face the fact that if they are paying low wages, their employees may be struggling financially and they should be willing to make changes to address that fact.

Solving poverty is something that all sections of society need to work together on. A model that does just that is working in Scotland, where Business in the Community is bringing together government with key businesses and social policy organisations like JRF to explore innovative ways of improving education and employment in order to tackle poverty.

It’s early days and hard to say what impact this model might have, but the organisations around the table are there because they recognise that poverty does matter. It’s bad for society, bad for the economy, bad for business and crippling for the individuals and families trapped in its grip. Let’s work together to change the story so our children can escape its clutches.

PS, if you haven’t see the movie ‘I, Daniel Blake’, I thoroughly recommend it as a valuable, yet shocking and tragic insight into how easily someone’s circumstances can lead to destitution.