Tag Archives: unemployment

Deconstructing unemployment figures

For every one of those people who has found a job, it is good news that the number of people in employment has risen. I only spent a few months looking for work, and every rejection saps your confidence while the bills keep coming in. But figures which record more people in work and fewer people claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) are pretty meaningless on their own.

For a start, the two measures are not entirely correlated – someone finding a job is not necessarily someone coming off benefits. I was never claiming JSA while I was job-hunting. Likewise, someone coming off JSA is not the same as someone finding a job. The current stream of people relying in desperation on food banks thanks to the brutal system of punitive sanctions is testament to that. This, I think, is at the heart of the Bishops’ recent criticism of government policy. Finding yourself with no money for four or six weeks without warning is hardly going to inspire hope.

But even if we accept that more people are finding work, the figures still do not tell the whole story. I’d like to know what kind of work people are finding. During the recession, thousands and thousands of people in the public and private sectors were made redundant. Many of these jobs were full-time, well-paid, permanent contracts with secure terms and conditions. The labour market has been badly damaged since then, with less security for workers, and an increase in short-term, part-time, low-paid jobs. The fuss over zero-hours contracts has died down, but the situation remains that people can get such a job, their JSA stops, but they don’t get any income because they don’t get any work.

We need to see more than the headline figures before we decide if the economy is really getting better. It is important that we know that the number of people who are self-employed is continuing to rise – great if you want to measure entrepreneurship but not so great for job security. And the number of people working part-time is also still 46,000 more than this time last year. This should be considered alongside the measure of people working part-time only because they can’t find full-time work – currently almost 5% of everyone who is working, or 1.4 million people, nearly as high as it has ever been.

The other price we have paid for a rising number of jobs in an environment of weakening workers’ rights is a drop in the real value of wages. Inflation may be falling, but at 1.9% it is still higher than the latest figures on weekly earnings increase of 1.1%, and we have got several years of rising prices and falling wages to catch up on. And for those on the lowest wages, rising prices have a bigger impact, as food and fuel take up a bigger proportion of household spending.

Finding a job is a good news story for every individual involved. But before we hail it as good news for the economy as a whole, and a sign of our economic recovery, I’d like us to evaluate the quality of the jobs which are being created. We need more full-time jobs, permanent contracts and better wages. This needs to include actually enforcing the minimum wage to root out unscrupulous employers, and moving as a society towards the living wage to ensure that being in work means you can actually support your family.

Changing the frame of the Benefits Discourse

I wrote this reflection in December 2012, and posted it on Facebook, so apologies if you’ve seen it before. But following a comment on my “Hard-working Taxpayers” post, I thought it was worth repeating. Sadly it still feels just as relevant, more than 6 months on.

I’m shocked by the ruthless way people on low-incomes have been treated by this Government, including in yesterday’s Autumn Statement.  I’m even more shocked that so many ordinary working people think that Government action to cut away welfare support is a good idea.  This view is summed up by the comments of Conservative MP Kris Hopkins: “There are a lot of people out there working very hard who are annoyed that there are other people who are not working and could be.”

At this point, I would like make a few observations.  Firstly, the New Statesman points out that “sixty per cent of the real-terms cut to benefits (they will rise by just 1 per cent for three years) falls on working households.  A working family on £20,000 with children will lose £279 a year from next April.”  Secondly, as pointed out in a letter from church leaders in the north to the government “structural unemployment makes it impossible for many to get the jobs they need for themselves and their families.”  And thirdly, according to the Office for National Statistics, 10.5% of those who are working would like more hours but can’t get them.  That is, 3.05 million people, a rise of nearly 1 million people since 2008.

People on benefits are not a drain on our society.  They are workers, often public sector workers looking after our health or our children, or people who would like to be, but there are not enough jobs.  The welfare system is meant to be social security, security for our society so that those in need will be taken care of.  We all provide for this safety net, and we may all one day be in need of it.  Our stretched economic resources means that, “most of us are only one or two pay packets away from having no money”, a comment repeated here by Carol Midgley from The Times following her interview with food bank organiser Julie-Anne Wanless.

Let’s treat the fellow members of our society with respect, and trust that when the time comes, and you need it, the safety net of the welfare system is still big enough to support you.