Work-rich and Work-poor, by Richard Berthoud

Policy Press, 2007, viii + 55 pp, pbk, 978 1 86134 954 5, £12.95

‘In 1974, 7% of adults in Britain between the ages of 20 and 59 were dependent on transfers, mostly social security benefits, from outside their immediate family. That is, they themselves were not in employment; and they did not have an employed partner either. The proportion had soared to 19% by 1993 – nearly one-fifth of the whole age group. In 2003, even after a 10-year period of economic growth and falling unemployment, the rate was still 14% – double the figure from the early 1970s’ (p.1).

These facts set the agenda for the research project which has resulted in this important report. The project set out to describe and to explain the changing distribution of jobs among families. Some generally useful data on employment probabilities is clearly presented at the beginning of the report, and conclusions are drawn in relation to employment trends for individuals. The analysis then moves on to families and employment in order to understand the substantial increase in the proportion of people in non-working families. Graphs at the foot of p.35 are particularly clear representations of the upward trends in no-earner and two-earner families.

The incentive structures of the tax and benefits system are often blamed for the decline in the number of one-earner families, but Berthoud believes that a sociological explanation might be more important:

‘All the signs are that the social division of employment is a dominant factor, overriding any economic calculus. There remains a strong normative expectation against female breadwinners. Once the existence of such a taboo is hypothesised, many of the conundrums surrounding no-earner families fall into place. The number of non-working husbands has increased. Women are all but forbidden to work if their husbands have not got jobs, so the wives in these families cannot share in the general increase in employment experienced by women in other domestic situations. This means that the number of no-earner couples must increase. Such a process could entirely explain the apparent growth in within-family polarisation ….’ (p.51).

If this is the case (and the report itself doesn’t offer evidence for this explanation: an additional qualitative research project would be required), then there is surely a strong argument for providing incentives for higher employment rates amongst individuals in no-earner families or for part-time employment for both men and women. Labour market rigidities create a clear divide between the full-time male earner and the male non-earner: surely one of the roots of the two-earner / no-earner divide. If this is one of the roots of the problem then that is where the pursuit of a solution must surely begin.