Challenging the myths around ‘workless families’.
For many years the myth of ‘workless families’ and a ‘culture of worklessness’ has been perpetuated by politicians who should know better. Recent debates over Universal Credit, and the scandal of Ben Bradley’s blog are just two examples of this. It continues to be essential to challenge this lie.
The comments of Ben Bradley MP, newly appointed Tory Vice-Chairman for Youth, that those who are unemployed should have vasectomies are deeply offensive and have rightly been condemned across the board.
Within the blog Bradley referred to ‘Families who have never worked a day in their lives’. The image this conjures up, of a family in which there are generations who have always been ‘workless’, has no basis in evidence. Families with two generations of ‘worklessness’ are extraordinarily rare. Families with three generations of ‘worklessness’ do not exist.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) undertook extensive research around the example raised by politicians of families in which there are three generations of permanently unemployed people. JRF were unable to locate any such families. And as for families with two generations of ‘worklessness’ these were found to make up ‘under 1 per cent of workless households.’
Most importantly JRF research showed that there was no evidence of a culture of ‘worklessness’ within families suffering from unemployment. Quite the contrary, the value of working for a living (socially, psychologically, and financially) was stressed across the generations. Unemployment was not seen as an easy existence.
Nevertheless, politicians continue to perpetuate the myth of ‘workless’ families and ‘workless’ cultures. In a debate on Universal Credit on the 23 November 2017, Baroness Buscombe argued that the positive impact sanctions had on behaviour could be seen through ‘the context of people whose families have for generations not had work in their lives’. In her response to questions concerning the evidence base of such a claim Baroness Buscombe highlighted evidence that ‘a strong association [is found] between being in a workless household aged 14/15, and poorer education outcomes, and worklessness and poverty in adulthood.’
There are two things worth noting about this response. First, her response does not pertain to ‘generations’ of workless families, as referenced in her original statement. Second, what she is highlighting demonstrates only a correlation and not causation which, as any scientist will tell you, are not the same thing.
Indeed, where higher income groups are studied and a comparison is made between families where at least one parent is working, and single parent families where no parent is working, it is found that this has little effect on educational and work outcomes for the child. The primary determining factor is income, not work.
We must continue to challenge the myth of the ‘workless’ family. There is no evidence for the existence of families with generations of ‘worklessness’ nor is there any evidence that ‘worklessness’ perpetuates itself. Continuing to make these false claims only stigmatises people in poverty further. Worse the perpetuation of such a myth leads to policies built on false assumptions. Far too often these policies are inadequate as a result. If you catch a politician making claims about ‘workless’ families challenge them to produce evidence, whether that be by writing to them, or speaking to them in person. Such a challenge is fundamental to changing the narrative around poverty.