Where are the stories about in-work poverty?
There is something distasteful about well-paid media executives overseeing stories exposing “shirkers” and benefit fraud – fraud which, as the government’s own figures demonstrate, accounts for less than 1% of the overall welfare budget. But then, as I argued here last year, one shouldn’t necessarily turn to mainstream media for the most accurate information of how people are really coping with the cost of living.
A detail that is left out of many reports is that the majority of people in poverty today live in homes where someone is working, as research from the New Policy Institute has shown. It is poverty pay, not shirking or worklessness, that is creating problems. The inadequately policed minimum wage has fallen in value and, as the Resolution Foundation reported last summer, as many as one in 10 jobs is now paying within 50p of the minimum wage. (The 10% figure rises to 12% among women, 22% among part-time workers, 18% in the retail sector and 42% in hospitality.)
As the EPI goes on to say: “Increasing numbers of people are now living on incomes below the value of out-of-work benefits (which themselves are worth far less than the poverty line). They include the rising number of jobseekers being sanctioned, private renters facing stricter caps on local housing allowance, social renters paying the bedroom tax, and low-income families paying council tax from which they were previously exempt.”
Very little of this makes it on to the news bulletins or TV documentaries. Instead, the poor are blamed for their own plight. And this harshness may be beginning to have some impact on the opinion polls, with Labour’s lead narrowing a little.
A confident and persistent restating of the facts will be required to stem this attack, or at least reduce its impact. The emerging reality of the consequences of continuing cuts in spending will be impossible to hide forever. The London-based media may wish to tell a story of rising prosperity and exploding house prices, but in the real world people will see wages still struggling to keep up with the cost of living and few signs of the wealth that a lucky few are enjoying.
“The characteristic of rightwing populists is that they kick down,” wrote my former colleague Martin Wolf in the Financial Times this week. That is precisely what we are seeing too much of at the moment. Ed Miliband is right to say that the stakes are high at the next general election. There could be a lot more kicking down going on in 2015 if the current direction of policy is not halted, and reversed.