Poverty in Perspective: working-age childless households
It is not unexpected that children are exempt from the evermore prevalent narrative of the deserving and undeserving poor – all children are considered to be equally deserving. So too are pensioners, who, having contributed all their lives, rightly expect to be supported in their later years, an opinion shared by the public at large.
It is perhaps this special status which has helped build a cross-party consensus around the need to prioritise child poverty, and why the Government has been working hard to maintain its election promise to keep universal benefits for older people intact, in the face of ever more radical cuts to working age benefits.
But between these two groups remain those for whom we know very little about, and whose poverty has never really been a political priority: working age adults without children.
Levels of poverty among this group have been quietly creeping up over time, and in 2009/10 were close to the highest level ever recorded.
In 2010/11, 15 per cent of working-age adults without children (3.3 million people) were living below the income poverty line (before housing costs have been deducted), and forecasts from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that childless working adults are now the fastest growing group of people in poverty – perhaps due to the fact they have been so overlooked by policy makers.
The impact of policies such as housing benefit cuts have not been considered when it comes to this group, and really, we know very little about them. We know far more about children in poverty – with Graham Allen and Frank Field exploring in depth the issues of early education and family composition. We also know more about pensioner poverty, with analyses of social isolation and fuel poverty giving us insights into this problem.
Demos’ new analysis is perhaps the first time this group has actually been studied in any depth. We identified five types of poverty experienced by childless working-age households through mapping a wide-ranging set of indicators – including levels of education, employment, health, housing and neighbourhood – to the low-income population.
We found – far more so than either pensioners or families with children – that childless working age adults encompass an extremely diverse group of individuals, who are all at very different stages in their lives, from school leavers to those approaching retirement.
They range from ‘stressed groups’, who account for just over 20 per cent of working-age households in poverty and who are likely to be non-white British social renters living in the most deprived areas. Almost all contain multiple adults, and are at higher risk of overcrowding and fuel poverty than other groups.
These households may well be extended family, blighted by low employment and without the coping strategies to budget effectively and manage on very low incomes; – to ‘empty nesters’ – accounting for one in ten of childless households in poverty, who are single adults in their 50s, possibly recent retirees or divorcees, who get by even though they have very low incomes mainly because they have paid off the mortgages on their homes and have few financial commitments.
One interesting feature of childless households in poverty is that two of the five groups we identified contain a sizeable subset of ‘recently poor’ households – both the empty nesters described above and the ‘new poor’ – the most prevent type of poverty covering 25 per cent of all childless households in poverty – fall into this category. They have been able to afford a comfortable quality of life in the past – the majority are homeowners, living in good neighbourhoods, and not suffering from material deprivation – and are now surviving through a period of vastly reduced income. This is likely to be due to early retirement or redundancy – a product of the difficult economic environment we face.
And there is a risk that we might view these two groups in particular as ‘coping’ and therefore not in need of support. They do not present the range of social problems (such as poor health, poor skills etc) associated with long term unemployment, and report to be ‘getting by’, so remain off the radar in an already overlooked section of society. But in the current economic climate, we cannot be complacent about people’s abilities to get back into the workplace unaided. Many recently redundant can soon become long term unemployed, with the associated impact on material deprivation, debt levels and poor health this brings.
Moreover, we cannot treat poverty as a static phenomenon when it is in fact dynamic. People’s situations change. The one-man bands may have plans to marry and have children; others may be looking forward to retirement; couples may separate and move to different areas where they have less social support; prolonged low income may lead to new social problems.
Working age, childless households are most likely to be transformed by life events. They feed the child poverty and pensioner poverty of the future simply by growing up and growing older. And this is why we must take seriously the fact that, through years of being overlooked by policy makers in favour of children and pensioners, this group is now the fastest growing group in poverty. By ignoring this group’s plight and not thinking about preventative measures, we are storing up problems in the future.