Yesterday, Catholic Archbishop George Stack made some remarks about poverty which, like so many remarks made by bishops on the subject, took statistics out of context in order to justify very damaging policy conclusions.
He argued that employment was not a route out of poverty, quoting the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) figure that more working households are in poverty than non-working households.
The situation described by the JRF arises firstly because the number of households in which nobody does any work whatsoever (which is the definition JRF use for their statistic on workless households) is vastly outnumbered by the number of households in which somebody does some work. On its own, a breakdown of the poverty population by work status tells us nothing. What matters is the relative risk of being in poverty for any given work status. The key question is ‘are the chances of moving out of poverty increased by finding work?’ The answer to that question is emphatically ‘yes’. To use an analogy, there will be far more non-Catholics in England and Wales who do not eat meat on Fridays than Catholics who do not eat meat on Fridays (because there are more than ten times more non-Catholics than Catholics). This does not mean that, if you convert to being a Catholic and accept the discipline of the Church, you then have more chance of eating meat on Fridays.
Secondly, the JRF statistic includes in the working households figure all those who do any work whatsoever (for example a few hours a week). Poverty, in working households, is hugely concentrated amongst families where the adult(s) do a small amount of work. A vibrant labour market, together with a tax and benefits system which provided opportunities and incentives for full-time work, would make a very big difference. This is quite contrary to the impression that the JRF statistic gives.
Indeed, the following statistics for households with children are especially pertinent. Amongst both couple and single parent families where the parent(s) is/are not in work, 54 per cent are in poverty as measured by material deprivation. Amongst couple families where one parent is in part-time work and the other not in work, 35 per cent are in poverty. Amongst couple families where one parent does not work at all and one works full time, 14 per cent are in poverty. In couple families where one parent works full-time and the other part-time just 2 per cent are in poverty. George Stack might regard the 14 per cent figure as high – though it is not nearly as high as the poverty rate amongst families with nobody in work. However, the 2 per cent figure, I think, tells us a lot about the value of work in reducing poverty.
There are also two tangential – but crucial - points in this debate. The first is that nearly 30 per cent of children grow up in families in which nobody works full time (the vast majority in single-parent families). This is problematic in terms of its effect on poverty, but also in terms of the impact it has on children more generally. Only long-term reform of the welfare and tax systems will change this. Such reform is generally attacked, not least by churches. Secondly, the overwhelming reason why families with adults in work are stretched is the high level of housing costs in the UK. It is not just a problem in the South East of England but in every region. This is entirely a function of the planning system. No other European country suffers from this problem – even countries that are as densely populated as the UK. Families struggle to afford food, not because food is expensive, but because housing is expensive. No amount of subsidy through housing benefit can lower costs if supply is fixed. It is a pity that church poverty lobbies never make that point.