Observer column: 22 March 2019
In work, in poverty
When buying the Observer recently, the shopworker pointed to the headline about additional money to deal with homelessness. "It's good news", he said, "But what help is there for people like me?". He told me that he works sixteen hours a day, six days a week. His wife works too. It's the only way they can survive. But the plight of the increasing number of people who are trapped in low-paid jobs, working every hour possible just to make ends meet, rarely gets the headlines, and exposes the real story behind employment figures.
The government has recently celebrated new figures showing 76% of the population aged 16-64 in employment - the highest since records began. But that hides the desperation behind these figures. For the first time this year, an annual survey revealed that more than half of all couples with children had both parents working, with almost a third where both parents worked full-time. Forty percent of these households are putting in extra hours' work to make ends meet, with the number of hours worked overall gradually rising. And over half said it's becoming financially more difficult to raise a family.
In Hastings, the average (median) wage for residents was just £20,066 in 2018 - £6,000 a year less than the average for South East England. Allowing for inflation, that's 21% lower than it was in 2010. However, the unemployment estimates for Hastings have fallen over that period from 9.8% to 5.3%. So while more people are working, they're earning much less, forcing both parents into work, into increasingly low-paid jobs.
Hastings Council has been pretty successful at winning grant funding to help the most deprived communities, and those most in need. The EU-funded 'Community-Led Local Development' programme provides £6m to fund projects for community development, skills development, and help into employment for people in the most deprived communities in Hastings and Bexhill. We've also had £600,000 to help set up a 'housing first' model to help rough sleepers, along with other grants to help homeless households.
But there isn't much available to help those who are 'just about managing' - as a general rule, grant programmes don't offer funding for projects to help this group, who are an increasingly large part, probably a majority, of the local population. The council does offer a Council Tax support scheme that reduces the amount those in low-paid employment have to pay, but there's not much else in the way of practical support from any agency.
A further consequence of the increasingly desperate problems many households have to make ends meet is their exclusion from participation in their community. If you're working sixteen hours a day, you don't have time to respond to online council consultations, or make your opinions known about local issues on social media. The exclusion of the voice of such a large part of the population is something we need to consider, both locally and nationally.
None of this is likely to change until we get proper reforms of employment law, including a decent living wage as a legal right, coupled with proper enforcement. Rather than celebrating the 'record levels of employment', the Government should be looking at why shopworkers have to work sixteen hours a day to make ends meet, and why so many families in Hastings and elsewhere are scarcely coping.
Council Leader's column