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Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

Fake relationships and Revolution 3.2

Monday, February 13th, 2017

The launch of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission a couple of weeks ago attracted more media attention than might be expected for such an event. No doubt this was largely due to the appalling circumstances of its genesis: Ms Cox was deeply concerned about the issue and was planning the commission at the time of her murder. MPs Rachel Reeves and Seema Kennedy are now carrying forward the work that she began.

However I don’t think the tragic association accounts for all the attention: As I have written previously, at least one in five Brits are lonely often or all of the time. Loneliness is a twenty first century  plague and although almost all the press coverage over the last two weeks has focused on  older people this is, as I noted a couple of weeks ago, a misleading emphasis.  Study after study has shown that no age or social group is immune.

 

We have been thinking about the early action contribution to this conversation. Our Early Action in Later Life report stirred passions in 2014 with the assertion that “befriending schemes are to social isolation what food banks are to poverty”.

We meant no disrespect to befriending schemes or to Food Banks, both are an essential response to a crisis, but neither, on their own, offer a long term solution. Alongside the remedial work we need a deeper, longer term approach to redressing the causes of loneliness.  Just as we must ask “why are so many people hungry?” and tackle those issues, so too must we ask “why are so many people lonely?” and confront the causes

This takes us into the wider issue of social isolation which we need to address not only to beat loneliness but also to boost educational performance, enhance economic opportunity and social mobility, reduce health inequalities, improve social cohesion and indeed do almost everything that really matters.

And, far from making progress on social isolation, we are not even moving in the right direction. Instead we are, as Alvin Toffler wrote, “experiencing the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future”.  Our every transaction is now automated from paying the rent to fixing a doctor’s appointment. Social media has redefined our understanding of friendship. We have limitless virtual networks but fewer real friends. Those that we do have are likely to be scattered and distant. We network but we don’t relate. And we have devalued our understanding of the concept of “relationships” to the point where I travel to Birmingham and Virgin Trains assure me that they “value our relationship”.

Fake relationships are as ubiquitous in 2017, and just as insidious, as fake news.

Across the sweep of history this sequence is not unfamiliar. First the agrarian, then the industrial revolutions disrupted social patterns and called for new ways of behaving individually and collectively. Social change followed but it took a while. Now we are again in the catch up phase. Part 3.2 as it were, of the technological revolution that has so transformed our lives in recent years.

We have to tackle the scourge of social isolation by fixing the cause. To do that we must begin with a two part question:

First, what is a real relationship?  I think it is one that nourishes with depth and meaning.  It is between people, possibly facilitated by a machine or an organisation but not with a machine or an organisation. And it is about more than kindness or reciprocity, empathy or solidarity although it is all these things. It may be closest to what in Africa is known as Ubuntu – “my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours. We belong in a bundle of life” Desmond Tutu.

And then, what is a real 21st century relationship? We can’t rewind the clock even if we wanted to. Our generation’s big challenge is to fathom out how we use and benefit from the recent advances in ways which don’t devalue our essential humanity but which value, sustain and enrich it.

Voluntary organisations like ours don’t have all the pressing mandatory duties of a statutory authority. We have the freedom, and with the freedom a responsibility, to try to understand not just how we manage or ameliorate a problem but how we build a better society. I’m not sure what Revolution 3.2 should look like but I do think  we should try to free the space to think about it not least because, as Dr Toffler also said, You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”

Tackling racism at its root

Friday, November 25th, 2016

The murder of Jo Cox, which led to her killer being given a life sentence on Wednesday, was a shocking reminder of where racist thinking can lead. Yet, despite a concerning rise in far-right activity and hate crime against ethnic minorities, there appears to be little focus on preventing racism from taking root.

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However, one small organisation in Swansea is acting earlier to tackle hate crime and promote better opportunities for young people. Through working with disadvantaged ethnic minority young people, the Ethnic Support Youth Team (EYST) noticed that the young people they worked with were experiencing increasing levels of racism and hate crime. They realised that nearly all the emphasis in this area was on encouraging victims to report hate crime, but little was being done to prevent it from happening. Furthermore, a rise in far-right activity in Swansea highlighted that it was a particular type of young white person being recruited into these organisations: extremely disadvantaged, often excluded from mainstream education, and sometimes within the youth offending system.

In response to this, EYST developed the Think Project, a targeted intervention for 16-25 year olds which mirrored the work they were doing in preventing radicalisation in young Muslims. The project stands out as one of the few programmes in the UK that solely focuses on targeting young white people who are most vulnerable to far-right extremism. Delivered through pupil referral units, youth offending teams, and schools, it is a three day educational programme that combines education about Islam, migrants, and asylum seekers with positive, first-hand experience of diversity. It is delivered by ethnically diverse youth workers and connects the young people with those they have previously feared or misunderstood, hearing their stories and challenging myths.

The importance of learning the facts and gaining these experiences couldn’t be starker. Of the nearly 500 young people that Think Project has worked with in the last four years, over half thought that immigrants make up 50% of the population of Wales before completing the programme, and a quarter believed it was around 75%. The reality is closer to 6%. This distorted perception of reality plays into the hands of far-right groups who claim the country is overrun with immigrants taking our jobs, homes, and benefits. Yet Think Project demonstrates that given the opportunity to learn the facts and gain positive first-hand experience of diversity, these opinions can be challenged. The project’s external evaluation showed that whilst most young people on the programme initially held strong and largely negative views about immigration, asylum and diversity, these views change significantly for the 95% of participants by the end of the programme.

The power of Think project is most clearly demonstrated through the stories of those involved:

‘Kayleigh’ took part in one of the group sessions delivered in Merthyr Tydfil, and by her own admission at the start of the programme, ‘just didn’t like people with different skin colours, didn’t like it when they talked their language, just couldn’t stand them’. After the 3 day programme she said ‘I feel completely different now, we’re all human, we’re all here for different reasons’. After the programme, the Think project workers supported her to take up volunteering opportunities with an international volunteering exchange charity. She thoroughly enjoyed a one week residential volunteering opportunity in Cardiff, meeting people she would never have met in her home town. She is now considering undertaking volunteering abroad with the same charity, something she says she would never have done without the Think Project. She volunteered to speak about the impact of the project at the end of project conference, and has applied to become a community organiser with Hope not Hate.

 

Key to the success of Think Project has been recognising that whilst these young people are potential perpetrators of hate crime, they are also victims of the failures of our education system and society more generally. By providing a safe space where they can air their real and perceived grievances and by treating them with respect, the Think Project enables their views to be debated and challenged without pushing them deeper into prejudice. During the programme, emphasis is placed on improving the participants’ confidence, understanding, and communication skills and once it is completed participants are encouraged to pursue volunteering opportunities. In doing so, Think project is further increasing their resilience to far-right groups as well as increasing their opportunities to thrive.

Think Project sets an example on how to act early to effectively tackle racism and create better outcomes for some of our most vulnerable young people. But it is only a small organisation, and its perception as an ‘add-on’ service means that the issue of funding is a constant challenge. Whilst there are also much wider challenges around poverty and inequality which must also be addressed, it is crucial that schools and educational institutions begin to act earlier on racism, and equip our young people with the tools they need to become positive and active contributors to society. In the words of Jo’s sister, Kim Cox, “Whilst we can’t change what’s happened, we can try and choose how we respond… with love, strength and positivity”.

 

You can read more about Think Project on their project website here.

You can see more examples of early action in our case study gallery.

 

Where next for the benefit sanctions rollercoaster?

Friday, October 21st, 2016

Looking at a graph of benefit sanctions statistics since 2010, it has more in common with a nerve-racking rollercoaster ride than a DWP dataset. For many benefit claimants, that’s exactly what it has been. 

Between 2010 and 2013 the number of sanctions against people claiming Job Seekers Allowance more than doubled, from a rate of 533,000 a year to an eye-watering peak of over one million. Since then they have almost halved, raising the question: why the great rise and fall in sanctions in the space of just a few years and where will they go from here?

Benefit sanctions (where a claimants benefits are reduced or stopped for a period of time) are a pertinent issue for Community Links. Through our delivery of the Work Programme we are obliged to ‘raise doubts’, often leading to claimants being sanctioned, while through our advice services we regularly support clients who have been sanctioned. For many years, Community Links – alongside others in the third sector and academia – has campaigned against the punitive use of sanctions as they have driven many of our service users into destitution and away from the Government’s stated aim of encouraging people into work.

Why the great rise?

In 2010, the Coalition Government’s new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, signalled the starting gun in a statement to the House of Commons: “we expect co‐operation from those who are seeking work. That is why we are developing a regime of sanctions for those who refuse to play by the rules.”

The impact was immediate, resulting in more Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claimants being sanctioned and more people likely to receive multiple sanctions. At the same time sanctions also increased in severity, in terms of length for JSA claimants, and in terms of length and income reduction for ESA.

Adding to this, the numbers of people unfairly sanctioned also increased dramatically. One of our service users, who was strongly work-orientated, explained how powerless and destitute not being able to attend a job interview due to an incorrect decision made her feel.

“I had times when I literally had no food and no gas. I just lay in my bed looking at the walls. I couldn’t travel or make any calls. I couldn’t even afford to get the bus to sign-on, but I knew that if I didn’t go I’d be suspended again. It’s like a vicious cycle. I turned up to the Jobcentre actually hungry. I hadn’t eaten for two days and I was scared that if I was five minutes late they might suspend me again – it really wasn’t easy.”

The increased numbers of claimants being sanctioned for failing to participate in training and employment support – largely via the Work Programme – had a significant impact on the overall rise in sanctions, and in 2014 this accounted for 31% of all sanction decisions. Another factor attributed to the rise was the DWP raising its off-flow targets (the removal of claimants from the unemployment register) for Jobcentres. Although the Government has repeatedly stated that sanctions targets do not exist and that they are only imposed as a “last resort”, there have been numerous reported incidences of Jobcentre staff being put under pressure to impose financial penalties on benefit claimants in order to meet staff performance standards.

And then the fall?

As with the unprecedented rise, Government have never provided a clear explanation for the precipitous fall in JSA sanctions since their peak in 2013. The fall in JSA claimants (dropping 49% between 2013 and 2015 due to the labour market recovery) obviously had a large part to play.  However, the monthly rate of sanctions as a proportion of JSA claimants has also halved during this period, suggesting a significant change in policy.

Other key factors influencing the downward trend have been a reduction in referrals of claimants to the Work Programme and the growing number of claimants being transferred from JSA to Universal Credit (UC), for which sanctions statistics are not yet available.

Whilst the continued demise of sanctions is welcome, and the work of charities and others who influenced this change should be commended, they still cause untold hardship and misery, even if it is for a smaller number of claimants. For many of our clients, a sanction means going hungry, being unable to heat their home, and in some cases not being able to afford the bus fare to meet a Jobcentre advisor in order to find work.

The future of sanctions

The noises from the new Government indicate a potentially more constructive approach to social security. The new Work and Pensions Secretary, Damian Green, has said that there will be ‘no new search for cuts in individual welfare benefits’, and has scrapped reassessments for chronically-ill disabled people seeking to claim ESA. His predecessor had already introduced a “warning period” for those facing a sanction. However, this does not mean that the rollercoaster that many of our most vulnerable service users have been on will not rise again.

A commitment to no new cuts in welfare benefits could in itself be an incentive for Government to seek cost savings through increasing benefit ‘off-flows’ and hence increasing sanction rates. The introduction of in-work conditionality in Universal Credit (UC) and the new Work and Health Programme will introduce new sources of sanctions in the coming years, though it’s still unclear the balance it will adopt between support and punishment.

Community Links will continue to make the case for sanctions to only be used as a last option. In submissions to the Work and Pensions Committee and National Audit Office we have continued our call for a full evidence-based review of the sanctions regime, as well as asking the DWP to provide a clear rationale for applying conditionality to UC claimants in work. We believe that the focus of any regime should be about supporting people into sustainable and fulfilling employment, rather than ensuring compliance, which too often results in destitution on the one hand, or forcing people into unsuitable, low paid insecure work on the other.

Dr David Webster, October 2016, Explaining the rise and fall of JSA and ESA sanctions 2010-16

Seeking the sunshine, then and now

Thursday, August 18th, 2016

What would James Keir Hardie have done to end the civil war currently engulfing the Labour Party?

Probably not much more than anyone has been able to do in these recent turbulent times. He resigned the leadership of the party in 1908 largely because he couldn’t manage the internal rivalries. The path to what the Labour Party founder and one time MP for West Ham called the “sunshine of socialism was as bitterly contested 108 years ago as it is today. None the less there are lessons to be learnt from a man who truly broke the mould of British politics and who was, and who still remains, a local hero to many in east London

As the modern Labour party lurches like a Saturday night drunk from one clumsy fight to another we have an intriguing opportunity to reflect on the legacy of Keir Hardie.  A new play called “ A splotch of red” retells the story of this pioneering radical. It will run for 4 nights and one afternoon next week in the big hall at Community Links that once echoed to the perorations of the blazing Scotsman.  Written by acclaimed play write (and a Newham resident)  James Kenworth, it is the third in a series of unique collaborations between local young people and established artists. The Independent thought the last one was “terrifically powerful…highly recommended”.

At the time of Keir Hardie’s election in 1892 the borough that we now call Newham was “a little isolated republic outside the vast area of the metropolis where the factory and dockyard workers swept their human rubbish, the flexible labour of those marginalised women and men who powered and serviced the capital, concentrated in overwhelming numbers”.  (Claisse J, Will Thorne, the campaign for West Ham south.) Poverty today is of a different order but the distinctions between the work force in this borough and in some of our more prosperous neighbours is miserably consistent.

Some of Keir Hardies first campaign demands were met long ago –  an old age pension for instance. Others would not be out of place in Canning Town today. Lower and controlled rents, for example, and the taxation of land values are the kind of radical, heavyweight solutions that are needed now to shift the housing problems affecting so many of our current residents.

The new MPs first period in parliament, and tenure as our local MP, was relatively brief. A combination of a patchy performance in Westminster, local divisions and a revitalised opposition, led to his electoral defeat in 1895 but what the then cabinet minister Sir William Vernon Harcourt first described  as a “little splotch of red”  didn’t go away.  The first Labour Council was elected in West Ham four years later and Newham Council has remained Labour controlled ever since.

Of course James Keir Hardie was a 19th century politician and Community Links is a 21st century charity. We are very different animals but the connections are much more than locational. Keir Hardie believed it was important, indeed essential, to share the experience of poverty with the rulers of the day whether or not they wanted to listen. During his time as our local MP his was, often quite literally, a lone voice but he persevered, both in his period here and long after.  This determined visionary never lost his conviction that the world could be a better place.

Talking about poverty however was nowhere near enough. He was later to say “my work has consisted of trying to stir up a divine discontent”. This was the community organising of its day and profoundly pragmatic.

James Keir Hardie both spoke out and enabled the might of other voices to be heard.   Times change but challenges remain. The right principles have timeless application and they still live here.

Tickets for “A splotch of red”, are currently available here and priced at “whatever you can afford”.  I imagine that the driven and passionate man who once sat where I sit today, would have appreciated that.

Acting earlier on child protection: is care the only option?

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

Following a number of high-profile child deaths, social services’ increased aversion to risk coupled with a political drive to hasten and increase adoption has led to applications to take children into care hitting a record high.

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Image courtesy of Volunteering Matters

A number of public figures have raised concerns about this rapid rise in applications, including Sir James Munby, president of the high family court division, and Dave Hill, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services. Their common message is that adoption is always an option for those that need it, but a more balanced approach should be taken to ensure that families are not being broken up unnecessarily. The process of removing a child from their family is inevitably traumatic, and the current system is not always providing the high quality care needed for children to achieve better outcomes. Furthermore, foster and residential care is extremely expensive, costing local authorities roughly £2.5 billion a year. With social services across the country already straining under the pressure of cuts, it’s clear we need to rethink how children’s services can be provided more efficiently, whilst ensuring the best outcomes for children and families.

Rethinking how we protect children

As part of our work on building a case study gallery to showcase examples of early action, we’ve come across a number of projects that are taking a different approach to child protection, and supporting children’s services in the process.

In our ‘Rough Guide to Early Action’ we featured the Ceredigion CAB and Children and Families Services’ ‘Specialist Intervention Team’ (SIT), whose caseworkers are supporting families to address the underlying socio-economic problems which are often limiting parents’ capacity to look after their children, such as insecure housing, a lack of income, or high levels of debt. One third of families say that without the support of SIT, their children would have been taken into care. The team is also delivering significant savings by preventing social services from having to escalate their involvement.

More recently we interviewed Volunteering Matters’ about their ‘Volunteers Supporting Families’ (VSF) project, which has supported vulnerable families and children in a number of local authorities since its inception in 2004. VSF is premised on the notion that keeping children safe is the responsibility of the whole community – not only the parents. The project has yielded some very impressive results. By building trust and developing impartial relationships with parents, volunteers help families to make the changes needed to create a safe and stable environment for their children.

We’ve always emphasised that early action can take place at any stage of prevention; Pause is an example of intervention at a very late stage that nonetheless helps to break the traumatic cycle for mothers repeatedly having their children taken into care. Pause gives these women space to reflect, enabling them to overcome challenges and build new skills. Still being piloted, the programmes are already beginning to show promising results, with women being supported into a range of services and no further pregnancies to date. Pause estimate that if they support 100 women for five years, they could deliver possible savings of £10 million for social services.

Key ingredients for acting earlier

There are a number of parallels between these examples that can teach us something about taking an early action approach towards family breakdown.

Firstly, parents’ ability to look after their children is often limited by underlying factors, such as socioeconomic drivers, physical and mental health, and family conflict. Accordingly, preventing breakdown requires a holistic approach which overcomes silo-working and ensures that families get the support they need. As Lisa McFadzean of SIT often points out to social workers “let me threaten you with eviction, redundancy or stop your income altogether. Let me give you a bailiff knocking at the door demanding money. Tell me how effectively you’re going to parent?”

Secondly, using a third party, be they a professional or a volunteer, as broker between families and social services can often encourage parents to engage. Third parties have more time to devote to developing deep value relationships than a social worker does, making parents more willing to disclose information and confide their problems.

And finally, acting early reduces considerable social and financial costs. By ensuring that those who can be helped early are supported, this frees up resources to focus on more complex and serious cases. Enabling people to care for their children and equipping them with strategies to increase their resilience ensures that they are able to lead happy, healthy and more productive lives, whilst contributing more and costing less.

It’s easy to despair when considering the huge challenges currently facing our social services, yet these examples demonstrate that redesigning services can offer a more sustainable future. To achieve this at a systemic level, political and funding structures must be transformed, which is of course easier said than done. Yet we must continue to push for this, given that the choice is to prevent now or pay tomorrow; with children’s futures in the balance, is that a risk we are willing to take?

Good old Bob

Monday, June 20th, 2016

Bob Holman, who died last week, wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea and I don’t think he’d mind that I said so. I think he would smile.

Our friend was a tireless critic of bunkum and conceit, of pomposity and privilege and he had the guts and the stamina to speak out over and over again, very courteously but fearlessly and relentlessly. Throughout his life Bob wrote and talked and campaigned against poverty and injustice but the many books, the numerous articles, the pithy letters to the newspapers, the lectures and presentations were only part of an extraordinary 79 years. To paraphrase Gandhi, Bob was the change that he wanted to see in the world, an active and dedicated community worker, forgoing his professorship, living and bringing up his family in the communities where he worked – Southdown in Bristol and Easterhouse in Glasgow.

Born in east London he never lost his early love for the place, writing biographies of local heroes George Lansbury and James Keir Hardie in his later years and often drawing on his childhood experience here. Bob was a friend of Community Links from our earliest days. This is an extract from a piece he published in 1990 drawing together that affection for this area, generous support for our work and above all his passion for radical change:

“I support Community Links for many reasons. First I believe Community Links is right to identify poverty as an issue to which it must give most attention…. lives characterised by material hardship and want… Britain is a prosperous nation and I cannot accept that so many of its families have so much while others have so little. The team at Community Links share this belief.”

“Second, I admire Community Links because their response is not one that patronises people with low incomes, not one which makes them feel inferior and demeaned. On the contrary, the users at Community Links have become its doers, its volunteers, its committee members, and its staff. Community Links shares opportunities, responsibilities and power and so treats others as equals…”

“George Lansbury would have approved of Community Links opposition to poverty, its insistence on local control and its integrity.… He served as an East End MP and borough Councillor for much of the period 1900 to 1940 and his home was always open to those in need. … Lansbury was not ashamed to talk about love. He wrote “I love England and especially dear, ugly east London.. I want people to join me in striving to bring love into all our lives” …

“Love of this nature” concluded Bob “will not allow one section of our population to be in luxury and power while others are poor and powerless. I commend Community Links because it is doing something to stimulate this kind of social love”

The Lansbury quote appeared also in Bobs 1990 biography of the politician. Its title recalled the Labour leader’s local epithet: “Good Old George.” I looked out my tatty edition last night along with an equally dog eared “Faith in the Poor” which he compiled eight years later. It was a simple collection of conversations with people in poverty – people, he said, who knew better than anybody what would be right for them, their families and others in similar positions. Tucked into the back of my copy are some of Bob’s letters, often angry but always resolutely hopeful and determined, generous, passionate, funny and humble. Helena Kennedy QC is quoted on the back cover: “Cabinet ministers should go and sit at the feet of Bob Holman”.

How very sad it is that that moment has passed. Now more than ever politicians and policy makers of all political persuasions, not to mention public service managers, third sector leaders and community workers everywhere, should surely read the book.

Good old Bob.

A battle for all generations: we need to address the socio-economic drivers of inequality regardless of intergenerational fairness

Thursday, March 10th, 2016

As young and working age households lag further behind their older relatives in-terms of income growth and homeownership, we look at addressing inequality across the ages.

Poverty, inequality and age are important issues for Community Links, especially considering our vision as a charity is for confident communities ready to create and seize opportunities. It’s for this reason we read with interest the Resolution Foundation’s 2016 Living Standards Report. It found that working-age households have undergone a much tighter squeeze than older people, reflected in pensioners’ incomes rising 10 times faster than working-age ones since 2002. It also found that low to middle income households under-35 have experienced the sharpest fall in homeownership rates, dropping from 50% to 25% since 2000 and predicted to drop as low as 10% by 2025 and more like 5% for those living in London. The opposite was true for people over 64, with homeownership rates increasing from a quarter to a third since 2000.

As well as homeownership falling, poverty amongst young people is rising. According to the New Policy Institute, poverty amongst the under 60s in the UK, particularly 16-24 year olds, has risen since 2001, whilst for the over 60s it has seen a dramatic and unprecedented decline. Whilst drops in elderly poverty rates are most welcome, the steady rise in poverty within our younger generations should set the alarm bells ringing. So why don’t we hear Government talking more about it and why isn’t there greater state intervention targeted at the young and working age? The short answer could be political participation. Voter turnout amongst 18-24 year olds in the 2015 General Election was nearly half that of the over 65s.

So it’s no wonder the likes of Heidi Allen MP, one of the so called ‘Tory tax credit rebels’ is calling on politicians to take “brave” steps to address the challenges facing young working age people on low to middle incomes. Likewise the DWP Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into intergenerational fairness calling into question the ‘triple lock’ on pensions and assessing the collective impact on different generations of policies in recent years. But what are the realities on the ground? Are grandparents, their children and grandchildren even aware of the growing disparities in their socio-economic outcomes? Are there heated debates at the family Sunday lunch?

Grandparents, children and grandchildren generally want to support each other, but don’t always have the means to do so

At Community Links we work with 16,000 people each year in the East London Borough of Newham, which can claim to be one of the youngest, most diverse and poorest areas in the UK. We know that many pensioners and elderly people face poverty and isolation. For this reason we run a Pensioners Club every Wednesday from our building in Canning Town and have developed a Linking Ages project that brings elderly and young people together to share their experiences and skills. Likewise we know that many of our young people face challenges in progressing in education, training and employment. To address this we deliver a Talent Match employability programme for young people in East London who are furthest from the labour market. We also work in close partnership with Bank of New York Mellon delivering the Future Links employment training programme to 16-18 year olds who are not in employment, education or training (NEET).

From our experience supporting the young and the old, it is not an issue of fairness between the generations, but of fairness and equality in wider society. After all the vast majority of those over 64 who have seen incomes and homeownership increase in recent years have children and possibly grandchildren who will stand to inherit those assets. Yet receipt of that inheritance won’t necessarily bring about fairness and equality for our younger generations.

We need to address the socio-economic drivers of inequality regardless of age

The think tank Civitas has attributed the growing generational divide in homeownership to the advantages of the better-off half of baby-boomers compared to both poor baby-boomers and to those members of younger generations who do not stand to inherit. Such an argument has legs in a place like Newham, which in the last year has seen the biggest house price increases of any local authority in the country. These increases have been accompanied by a dramatically expanding private rented sector and similar rises in rents, making secure accommodation a distant dream for the third or more of Newham’s residents who are paid below the London living wage.

And this brings us to the heart of the issue: we need to address the socio-economic drivers of inequality regardless of age. In Newham and London we are facing a housing crisis which is denying multiple generations of a genuinely affordable and stable home. At the same time the Resolution Foundation has forecast slight reductions in income for the poorest 25 per cent of households between 2015 and 2020. Ignoring this toxic cocktail of social indicators is not an option. The young and the old need to be championing forward thinking solutions like a ‘triple lock’ on children’s benefits and building more genuinely affordable homes. At the end of the day every family needs a stable homes and a steady income to flourish and thrive, to be young and to grow old.

 

Living wage week: fair pay, fair play

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

The Resolution Foundation last week reported that a record five million UK workers are in low-paid work. This is a problem for the government because it limits tax revenues. It also means that the government must spend a lot of money subsidising low wages through Working Tax Credits.

Low salaries coupled with rising living costs have created significant financial pressures on households, increasing levels of in-work poverty. Research shows that in-work poverty results in poor health outcomes, increased debt and lower attainment in school. In-work poverty is not good for a healthy, functioning society in which individuals are enabled to succeed.

As you can see from the map above, low pay is a particular problem in Newham; where Community Links is based. Newham has more people in low-paid work than either the UK or London averages. Research undertaken by Newham Council showed that nearly half of all residents in work in the borough receive less than the London Living Wage.

At Community Links, we are half way through a longitudinal qualitative research project examining the impacts of welfare reform on local residents. Most recently we collected information from people both in and out of work and found that those with jobs seemed to be struggling just as much to make ends meet as others who had been impacted by headline reforms such as the ‘Bedroom Tax’.

One case study highlighted in the report is the story of local resident, Bradley, who works full time as a traffic marshal, earns the minimum wage and tops up his income with Tax Credits. Bradley explained to us that he felt frustrated by having to rely on Tax Credits. He could not understand why some employers do not ‘give people a decent wage to live on so there’s no need for tax credits’. Even though he was working hard, he could not afford a basic standard of living and struggled to pay his rent.

This week is living wage week, and new rates have been announced which see London’s hourly rate increase from £8.80 to £9.15. The campaign offers a chance to publicise the challenge and promote better practices. It is a celebration of employers who are committed to fairer remuneration. Alongside the campaign there have been some important news stories recently, including the battle won by unionised Ritzy cinema workers in Brixton.   Many well-known public figures came out in support of the highly politicised Ritzy campaign which culminated in the cinema chain agreeing to pay staff near to the living wage. Furthermore, there has been a surge in firms signing up to the living wage in the run-up to this week with big names like Google, Barclays and ITV now committed to paying staff fairly.

Whilst, these cases are positive, there is still a long way to go. It is clear both from our study and other research that low pay is a serious and widespread problem, especially in Newham. When working does not provide a family with a fair wage, organisations like Community Links are looked upon to pick up shortfalls. Every day we support people who are in work – including with referrals to food banks. It feels unfair to everyone involved that this basic need cannot always be sustained through working.. In fact, it makes people feel disempowered and discouraged from finding and sustaining employment.   Furthermore, if we truly want to enable people to be ready to seize opportunities, it is crucial that challenges in the housing market are also addressed, as a recent LSE blog highlighted.

That said, a fair living wage for all workers will start to address some of the root causes of poverty and inequality. It is right that we move towards greater fairness and equality and we need to properly reward and respect the hard work that many living in the borough undertake with hopes of improving their lives. It is about dignity and justice and it is about being able to thrive and strive.

Community Links is proud to be a living wage employer.

Child poverty in east London, the maps the statistics and the human impact.

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

The Campaign to End Child Poverty has today published new figures showing that London contains 14 out of the top 20 local authorities with the highest rates of child poverty across the UK. The three boroughs with the worst record on child poverty are in the heart of east London where Community Links operates.

Our headquarters are in Newham – a borough which often features in league tables measuring poverty, ill-health and social exclusion, and today’s figures showing that Newham remains among the top areas for child poverty in the UK, despite being so close to so much wealth, are truly devastating. We know that Newham residents in the main work very hard, often on more than one job, but for very low rates of pay. More than 50% of the workforce here earns below the London Living wage and over 20% are illegally employed on less than the minimum wage.

But by focussing on the figures it’s too easy to lose sight of the human effect of poverty. Our own research into welfare reform earlier this year showed how multiple cuts combine to become unmanageable for families. The end result is to leave them less, rather than more, able to cope, find work and support themselves; many reported cutting back on essentials such as food and fuel. Parents felt particularly vulnerable and spoke of the pressure put on their dwindling finances by the cost of clothes, food, and transport. In some cases, parents go without food to allow their children to eat.

Today’s statistics are yet another reminder that life remains really tough for many people in our borough.

As well as dealing with the consequences of family poverty through our debt advice and money management services Community Links is addressing the causes – supporting people to find training, sustainable work or set-up their own enterprises. Additionally our research and policy team are working to change the circumstances which leave east London’s Children growing-up in poverty; we will be continuing to use our understanding of life on the ground to lobby the government to make sure that future welfare reforms focus on improving the lives of the poorest people: encouraging their strengths rather than controlling their weaknesses.

 

 

We need an assessment of the cumulative impact of welfare reforms

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

“It doesn’t seem like they really want to help people at all.”

“They have their own ideas about [these] people.”

“What do they care? There’s no sympathy at all.”

These are quotes from users of our advice service in Canning Town, east London. For many of the people coming through our doors, it’s hard not to feel frustration at the impact and delivery of the government’s welfare reforms. And it’s hard not to feel that MPs are passing down drastic and often devastating changes without properly considering their impacts.

House of Commomns chamber welfare debateLast week MPs had to sit up and consider them. A Commons debate on the need for a cumulative impact assessment of welfare reforms saw MPs from across the country sharing stories of how the changes affected people in their constituencies. These stories highlighted how the combined impact of different reforms was leading to terrible situations. The woman in a coma who received a letter telling her to look for work was one of the more harrowing examples. She had been hit by changes to council tax at a time when her new experience of the work programme was already proving incredibly stressful. The combined effect was enough to get her sectioned.

By discussing such examples, MPs began to highlight the reforms’ very human impacts – something not captured in the various econometric models published by think tanks and others.

The debate came a year to the day since a last-ditch opposition attempt to halt the bedroom tax and followed an opposition debate on the bedroom tax on Wednesday. It came at a crucial time for the government to defend its corner on welfare reform. The contributions of the Archbishop of Westminster, 27 other bishops and 16 further faith leaders, compelled the prime minister to set out his record on what he agreed was a “moral” issue.

Last week coalition MPs were, not surprisingly, quick to make the case for the morality of the reforms, arguing that they brought back the “core principles” of the welfare system and were about “making things right and proper”. Most would agree that the reforms’ ultimate aims – to simplify the welfare system and “make work pay” – are laudable. But indicative evidence has suggested that, in some cases, reforms may be failing to meet their aims. Take the work programme: several studies have suggested it is failing those furthest from the labour market, including the homeless and people with drug or alcohol problems. The first in-depth evaluation of the popular benefit cap, carried out by the Chartered Institute of Housing, similarly found it was failing in its intention to encourage people towards work and into cheaper housing stock.

In order to really judge the ‘morality’ of the reforms, or their success in achieving their objectives, we need to properly understand the impact they are having on people’s everyday lives. Two years have passed since the Welfare Reform Act was made law, bringing about the widest-ranging changes the UK’s welfare system has seen in decades—a total of 39 individual changes to benefit levels, eligibility and conditionality. And yet the government has thus far made no plans to thoroughly assess the impacts of the reforms on some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

In spite of last week’s agreement across the benches on the need for a more in-depth understanding of the impact of welfare reforms, coalition MPs continued to rebuff calls for a full investigation, arguing that such a task would be too complicated. Closing the debate, minister for disabled people Mike Penning stated that a cumulative impact assessment would be “very complex”. Another argued that understanding the “wide range of contributors” involved in welfare reform would make such an assessment “extremely complex … an enormous task”.

But it is precisely these complexities which some of the most vulnerable people in our society are forced to navigate every day. For many of the people Community Links works with in Newham, it is the combined effects of different reforms, rather than any one individual change, which make situations unmanageable. As a mother-of-two affected by the bedroom tax and changes to council tax benefit recently told us: “[There are] too many things going on. And you have to do it alone, nobody cares.”

A more detailed look at the personal, experienced, human impacts of welfare reform is urgently needed, not just for sick and disabled people but for all those in poverty. The people we work with are constantly crying out about their experiences: “It’s a terrible situation. It’s like I’m shouting but nobody hears” one said recently. That’s why at Community Links we are finalising a piece of research looking at these cumulative impacts in Newham, which we will launch next month.

This time last year a challenge to the bedroom tax was defeated. This time next year we’ll be in the run-up to an election in which welfare will undoubtedly be centre-stage. Right now, the government must look cumulatively at the impacts of its reforms and whether they are succeeding in their stated aims, or even in the basic objective of providing a safety net for those who need it most. The recent debate has started to shed light on some of these impacts. But we need a thorough assessment, one which is removed from the partisan politics of Westminster palace and can help us to shape a social security system that works for all.

This post originally appeared on Politics.co.uk is a leading, impartial, UK political website;
on Friday 28th Feb 2014 we are grateful for permission to repost here