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The plight of poverty in work

In her first speech as Prime Minister, on the steps of No 10, Theresa May spoke about fighting the burning injustices of being poor. She said, “The mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone means more than fighting these injustices”.

She referred to those who might have a job but no job security.  She spoke of those who are just managing and worried about paying the mortgage. She promised, “The Government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”

Two years later the Joseph Rowntree Foundation tells us that “14 million are still in poverty and unable to make ends meet, let alone think about building a better future, with the country now reporting the first sustained rises in child poverty in decades”. This statement is all the more shocking because many of these poor people are in jobs.

We have record numbers in work and wages are rising faster than prices and inflation but these achievements have not reached those who remain poor despite having a job. The well-off are doing well but the poorest are not sharing in this upturn. This is despite a £900 increase in the National Living Wage and tax cuts in last year’s budget.

Inevitably, Brexit has dominated the political agenda since that Downing Street speech and business leaders are forecasting that a bad Brexit deal will mean job losses. Whatever the truth of that, whichever party is in office post Brexit, tackling in-work poverty should be a top priority. Three quarters of low paid workers aren’t able to escape low pay and are four times less likely to have been given training than their better paid colleagues.

More and better training is needed to change that, with a focus on gaining job related skills rather than paper qualifications. The incentive for firms will be increased productivity and profits. Those profits will fund pay rises for previously low paid workers and give them more rewarding work experience. The Government can play a part in this by gradually raising the income tax threshold so that most of those basic pay rises are not taken by the tax man.

There is much more the Government could do to help the 14 million who live on the edge of not managing. The most obvious initiative is to ensure that schools adequately prepare their pupils for the world of work. There seems to be an assumption that getting into university is the prize for which every child should aim. That is plainly not right for everyone and schools and post school education should prepare their students for careers that match their potential and the needs of business and industry.

The ‘just managers’ also need affordable homes. High housing costs are as big a problem as low incomes. The Government could help by encouraging the building of a majority of new homes that are available with modest rents and low running costs. For example, building them with solar panels would help keep the fuel bills down. ‘Living rents’ schemes in areas where earnings are typically low would also help.

Theresa May has consistently maintained that work is the best route out of poverty. That has not been true for a lot of people and it is time for Government policies and management practices to make it true. From a Christian perspective we note the importance in the early church of caring for the poor. (E.g. Luke 4:18; Galatians 2:10). We can give personal and prayerful support to anyone we know who struggles to make ends meet despite having a job. Some Churches operate food banks which help those in dire financial straits. Let’s pray that they become unnecessary as public policies and business practices eliminate the plight of poverty in work.

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