Tag Archives: Institute for Fiscal Studies

A tale of two cities

On my way from a meeting at the Institute of Fiscal Studies to the Department of Work and Pensions yesterday, I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard on the tube. The headline rang ‘The Dispossessed’: London is a shameful tale of two cities. In the richest capital in Europe almost half our children live below the poverty line.

It was refreshing to see a mainstream media outfit deal with the issue of poverty in London. This is something one of the CREATE Consortium’s members, Community Links, has been blogging about recently.

Reading Joe Murphy’s How politics turned its back on the dispossessed, was particularly interesting given the conversation I had just had with the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ Mike Brewer. We were discussing the difference in attitude that both politicians and the public have towards benefits payments and tax credits. Both are tax payer’s money and yet benefits are seen as a drain on the public purse, something to be minimised at all costs, while tax credits are seen as a positive intervention.

It left me wondering from a campaigning point of view what we could do to change this attitude. It goes to the heart of why there is a need for a Community Allowance. If you are on Job Seekers Allowance and try to work for under 16 hours a week you have penny for penny taken away; the earnings disregard still being only £5 a week – less than an hours work on the minimum wage, unchanged since 1988! Yet if you take a job of 16 hours, tax credits protect your income and you are better off in work.

What kind of message does this send to people who want to get themselves out of poverty by taking some part time work? Why did the Government decide that 16 hours is good but 8 hours is bad? It’s an illogical distinction, only made logical by the pervsersity of the difference between the benefits system and tax credits. It has to change.

Interestingly, I am noticing that there seems to be a growing understanding of the necessity of this change, across the political spectrum. This marked change in attitude has come about in the last two years through a wealth of campaigning about the earnings disregard and influential reports such as the Centre for Social Justices’ Dynamic Benefits.

On Saturday I was on a panel with Tim Loughton MP (of Tower Block of Commons fame)  Shadow Minister for Children, at the Conservative Party Spring Forum. He seemed to get it. So did Terry Rooney MP, Chair of the DWP Select Committee, who I met yesterday after I’d been to the DWP.

The question is, what are politicians going to do about it? In a new era of austerity and public spending cuts, how do we tackle poverty? We think the Community Allowance is part of the answer to that question. For a change in the benefits regulations you get a win-win-win: for the person on benefits, earning a bit of money and gaining real work experience, for the community having socially valuable work done locally and for the tax payer every £1 spent on a Community Allowance would create £10.20 worth of social value.

We’re still waiting to hear from DWP about whether we can pilot the Community Allowance. The pace of the discussions in response to our Right to Bid proposal originally submitted in January 2009 is making us question the depth and sincerity of their commitment to pilot it in the 2008 White Paper. We’ll be blogging soon about what we’re thinking of doing next and how you can get involved.

Guest blog from Julia Unwin – CEO Joseph Rowntree Foundation

There are two very different public policy issues that currently cry out for resolution, and the Community Allowance provides the start of an answer to both.

The first is the appalling and risky under-funding of community based organisations. All community based organisations rely on the unpaid work of members and volunteers, sacrificing large amounts of time to try and make their communities better places. But without some funding for organisation and co-ordination, the strain can simply be too much. What is more, organisations without any paid leadership can find it difficult to find the time, or the energy, to do those essential things that enable community groups to grow and develop.  Funding has always been tight for community organisations: there is nothing new there, but as we face major spending cuts, the fragile hold that some community groups currently have on local authority funding may be even further eroded.  Voluntary effort may be the engine of community organisations, but frequently the lack of any paid staff means that the engine stalls.

And the second problem crying out for resolution and response is the way in which people living in poverty are helped to move into paid work. Research by JRF and others has shown that the complexity of the benefits system does put off many people from trying paid work because of the instability this can introduce into their household budgets – stability being more important for some than the extra income from employment. The Institute for Fiscal Studies and Gingerbread did a study for JRF modelling different ways of approaching ‘mini-jobs’ (of less than 16hrs per week) in the welfare system and concluded that a bigger disregard of earned income would have beneficial impacts on employment for lone parents. Other research funded by JRF, carried out by the Centre for Research in Social Policy, into the standard that most people think is needed highlights how far below adequacy some people on benefits can fall, especially if they do not have children living with them.

The Community Allowance provides the start of a solution to both these problems. It allows community organisations to offer employment to some people, and so provide the fixed commitment that they need so urgently, and it allows the individuals the opportunity to try out new work, and get remunerated for doing so.

And it is now more urgently needed than ever. The Welfare to Work reforms for Flexible New Deal will inevitably focus on those closest to the labour market, at least initially. The Community Allowance is aimed at helping people get into work who would probably not benefit from immediate help from the Welfare to Work providers, even the third sector ones.  This much more grassroots-led approach can complement, but not replace, the other approaches.

In my view it will do this in two distinct and innovative ways.

First, many people who do go into work from benefits at present risk swapping one form of poverty for another.  The Community Allowance will alleviate this to some extent by providing a safety net of benefits whilst people who have been out of the labour market for some time can get used to doing paid work.

Second, local community and other organisations who could employ people doing useful mini-jobs at present have difficulty recruiting people because of the disincentives in the benefits system.

The Community Allowance helps the individuals doing the work, the organisations who are getting the work done, as well as the community organisations which need the work done. The costs are small and the benefits significant, both to the individuals and to the organisations with which they work.

Julia Unwin CBE

Chief Executive, Joseph Rowntree Foundation