Poverty and Insecurity: Life in low-pay, no-pay Britain, by Tracy Shildrick, Robrt MacDonald, Colin Webster and Kayleigh Garthwaite

Policy Press, 2012, v + 256 pp, pbk, 1 847 42910 0, £26.99, hbk, 1 847 42911 7, £70

There is no better way to learn about the effects of the UK’s employment market and its tax and benefits system than to hear people tell their stories; and the stories that we hear are stories of the ‘precariat’ (Guy Standing, The Precariat, Bloomsbury, 2011): people whose lives are characterised by precarious employment – if any – and by the resulting precarious income. The back cover of the book says that ‘this book is the first of its kind to examine the relationship between social exclusion, poverty and the labour market’. Not true. Trapped in Poverty: Labour-market decisions in low-income households, by Bill Jordan et al (Routledge, 1992), followed similar qualitative methods and told a similar story: similar, but not the same, because comparing the two books shows that today many individuals and households are in a far more precarious situation than the households that Jordan and his colleagues interviewed on an Exeter local authority estate twenty years ago. (Trapped in Poverty is not in Poverty and Insecurity’s bibliography.)

Poverty and Insecurity’s first substantive chapter, chapter 2, describes the book’s ‘dynamic’ approach to poverty: that is, an approach that studies how people move in and out of poverty. (Here Ruth Lister’s Poverty, published in 2004, ought to have been referenced.) The authors discuss recurrent poverty, low paid work, the low-pay, no-pay cycle, precarious work, and poor work, all of which appear throughout the book. They discuss the precariat and find that its growth is largely due to workers being ‘bumped down’ from higher-skilled to lower-skilled jobs; and that one of its most significant features is the high transaction costs experienced when people lose a job: a period of no income while benefit claims are processed, leading to debt, and then to unrepayable debt. A brief history of our means-tested and demeaning benefits system leads to the conclusion that the benefits system contributes to the poor quality of low paid jobs.

Chapter 3 describes Middlesbrough, where the research was carried out, and also describes the qualitative method; and chapter 4 describes employers’ and ‘welfare to work’ agencies’ perspectives on the low-pay, no-pay cycle, and finds that such agencies have little contact with people who are regularly in and out of work because their schemes are designed to cater for the long-term unemployed.

Chapter 5 finds that low paid and insecure jobs lead to more of the same and are not stepping stones to better jobs; and interestingly that this difficult experience does not dim people’s work ethic. Chapter 6 discovers that qualifications might or might not be a road to good jobs, and that most insecure jobs are obtained through friendship networks (an efficient method for both employers and employees when the job might not last very long). Chapter 7 finds that the main drivers of the low-pay, no-pay cycle are the supply of insecure employment and workers’ willingness to accept it; chapter 8 discusses the circular relationship between illness and poor jobs, and the similar relationship between caring responsibilities and poor jobs; and chapter 9 concludes that ‘neither work nor welfare protected the interviewees from poverty’ (p.189).

Chapter 10 concludes that work is not necessarily a route out of poverty, largely because there is a plentiful supply of low-skilled, short term employment, and workers are willing to apply for such jobs. The result is a lot of people in a low-pay, no-pay cycle, and therefore socially excluded core members of the precariat.

Most of the book is well-evidenced diagnosis. The final few pages are prescription: better jobs, by paying a living wage and improving conditions; and poverty reduction by increasing the level of benefits. The authors find the benefits system to be moving in a punitive direction. Two myths that the authors tackle are that benefits are too high and that the poor do not wish to work. Neither is true.

The authors ask for a ‘welfare system that promised social security not greater insecurity’ (p.223) – a good description of a Citizen’s Income.