Exposing the mythologies of the workless

Tracy Shildrick

Tracy Shildrick

by Tracy Shildrick, co-author of Poverty and insecurity: Life in low-pay, no-pay Britain

Even in the short while since we finished writing this book the issues with which it deals have become even more critical and contentious. Poverty and insecurity provides a detailed account of life at the edges of the contemporary labour market. We undertook interviews with sixty men and women, aged between 30 and 60, who were trapped in a cycle of low paid working and periods on and off benefits. The book tells the life stories of our interviewees and details their day to day struggles with working life and a largely hostile and unhelpful benefits system.  The current Coalition government are keen to draw distinctions between ‘the deserving’ and ‘the undeserving poor’ and in trying to cement this unhelpful distinction they divide the ‘shirkers’ from the ‘strivers’. ‘Shirkers’ are those who can’t be bothered to get out of bed in the morning, whilst the hard-working ‘strivers’ are toiling to earn a living and pay their taxes. This spurious distinction paves the way for punitive welfare cuts justified as targeting ‘work-shy, welfare scroungers’ but which make poorest poorer (and also cut in-work benefits to people ‘striving’ in low-paid jobs).

This book stands as a corrective to this sort of myth making (a recent study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by some of the same authors challenged the idea ‘cultures of worklessness’ based on further research in Teesside and in Glasgow). This new book shows close up the day to day realities of working at the edges of the labour market. Ours is one of the first concerted studies in this area. A key aim was to understand the dynamics of poverty and marginal work across the life course and, drawing on in-depth life history interviewees, to illustrate the consequences of this for the lives of individuals and their families. Our research in Teesside provides a case study example of the wider processes of labour market polarisation that relegate some to a life of hard work in low, paid temporary jobs that neither relieve poverty nor provide pathways up and away from it. Importantly the study has shown that this pattern of working is not simply the preserve of young adults struggling through ‘entry level’ jobs but that these patterns continue for many into adulthood and the middle of working-life.

An important conclusion of the book points to the resilience and lasting work commitment shown by our interviewees, despite the frustrations and setbacks of the low-pay, no-pay cycle. This strong work attachment was learned across generations, where parents and grandparents had also worked and passed on the importance of ‘working for ones living’ to younger interviewees. It would not be an overstatement to say that our interviewees deplored claiming welfare benefits, with some refusing to claim all together. For example, one respondent  Carol Anne (34, in part-time work and a mother to a young son) said:

Me Dad always worked and me Mum did. I think that influenced me. I saw the difference between when me Dad worked and when he didn’t, you know? The money situation: I seen how they struggled when he wasn’t working…like they felt awful at Christmas when they can’t buy you the stuff that they want and it really doesn’t matter what you get but…that made me want to work and do the best for Ben really.  

Contrary to the widely held view that ‘employment is the best route out of poverty’, the sorts of work available to our interviewees – as care assistants, cleaners, shop assistants, factory workers, security guards – kept them in poverty rather than lifting them out of it.  At the bottom end of the wage distribution, there continues to be an abundance of low wage work in the UK and this was the work done by our interviewees. This is the sort of work that does not require high level or indeed any qualifications and which was predicted to wither if not disappear under visions of a ‘high-skills, information economy’. As the book shows, what employers in these sectors want is not high skills or qualifications but the ‘right attitude’; workers who are physically willing and able to do insecure, low paid, low skilled ‘poor work’.

The book makes a number of recommendations in respect of policy to tackle poor work and the low-pay, no-pay cycle. For instance, paying the Living Wage would make a substantial difference to the lives of our participants. The book ends with a discussion of what we call ‘the great myth’ and ‘the great illogic’. Through its critical case study material the book aims to show that much which claims to speak of the poor and the workless is myth. These are old, powerful and widely-held myths, but myths nonetheless. These are myths that tell us that people are poor because of their own behaviours. This book has helped to expose these mythologies of the workless and in doing so the fallacies of current welfare reforms, at least as they refer to those caught up in the low-pay, no-pay cycle. This ‘great myth’ is exposed for what it is by the ‘great illogic’. The initial results of the government’s Work Programme highlight what we mean. Even with the concerted help and guidance provided by this multi-million pound programme fewer people were moved into jobs than might be expected had those unemployed people been left to their own devices. To coin a phrase, ‘it’s the economy stupid’. In virtually all parts of the UK there are many times more job-seekers than there are vacancies.  As one welfare-to-work advisor put it to us, ‘what’s the point of aspirating [sic] people if the jobs aren’t there?’

Poverty and insecurity: Life in low-pay, no-pay Britain is available to order with 20% discount from the Policy Press website.

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