16 Feb 2011

Britain in 2011: people in work can’t feed themselves?

Can that be true?

I’ve been down to Salisbury (a city you associate with cathedral closes and green wellies) to find something you probably wouldn’t expect: a foodbank. It’s one of dozens of these US-style charity operations that have grown up unannounced around the country, handing out parcels of food to people unable to put a meal on the table.

Tens of thousands each year get parcels – mostly referred by GPs, health visitors, police, schools. That’s interesting in itself but we went to look at how the foodbanks are reporting a new phenomenon that throws light on life in Britain for many today. Their biggest growing cohort of people coming for help getting food on the table are folk who have an income, or people in a household where there is an income.

We knew that in-work poverty was a growing phenomenon in the UK – the latest estimate is that 53 per cent of working age households in poverty have at least one working adult. This is around 2.3m households (after factoring in housing costs). What the foodbank experience suggests is that these individuals are finding they plummet into crisis situations suddenly and more frequently.

Sometimes, we found, the emergency happens because agency work suddenly dries up – a construction worker we met can be on £800 one month and £170 the next. The fixed outgoings are geared more to the better income and are stretched to destruction by the plummeting one. And boy, do incomes plummet these days, without notice. To some, the labour market flexibilities introduced starting in the 1980s seem to be showing a lot of flexiblity in one direction. When you ask how many agency workers there are in this country, the estimates vary from around 260,000 (the Government’s Labour Force Survey) to 1.25m (the agency trade body the Recruitment and Employment Confederation).

Other factors that seem to trigger crisis situations for working poor we met in Salisbury were self-employed individuals whose income is erratic and workers forced onto lower working hours by their employers.

Much was made by some commentators of the glories of part-time work when the latest National Institute of Economic and Social Research figures came out revealing that 97 per cent of the jobs created since the recession ended were part-time. But look at the Department for Work and Pensions’ figures breakdown and you can see – for the first time – how many of those 97 per cent were not singing their way home at 3pm on a weekday. It seems that 1.2m of them actually wanted to work more hours but were being kept at lower working hours to keep the company ticking over or to keep company costs down. As today’s unemployment figures underline, it’s not the right time to go hunting in the job market, so people stay put and hope for better times.

For some needing food parcels the problem was accumulated debts and credit card payments eating into their disposable income. The personal debt figures for the UK tell you how widespread that must be. What all said was that the costs of petrol, food and rent – the basics – were having a lethal effect.

Tax credits don’t seem to protect these people. The market doesn’t want to pay them at the rate for the hours they want to work. Politicians have told workers that getting into work is the promised land …. but what if it isn’t? And what if the economic recovery doesn’t float all boats?

You can see our report on Channel 4 News tonight.

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