Continuing our series on practical approaches to tackling poverty, Michael Trickey explores what actions should be taken as a result of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s poverty reduction strategy and the framework for action in Wales.
The signals are all around us, whether the prospect of a ‘dreadful’ stagnation in UK living standards or concern about the ‘staggering wealth inequalities’ in advanced economies. Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) reports this week that a record 1 in 8 people in work across the UK are now in poverty. Poverty needs to be front and centre of public policy.
In September, JRF launched its five-point ‘We Can Solve Poverty’ strategy for the UK, based on four years research and evidence reviews about what works, and involving people with direct experience of poverty. It ‘aligns greater corporate responsibility with an active, enabling state, promoting individual capacity and capability’; seeking action by business, communities and individuals as well as government at all levels.
Despite the long commitment in Wales to tackling poverty, the level of relative income poverty stubbornly remains the highest of the UK countries at nearly 1 in 4 households. Something fresh is needed. Building on its UK strategy, JRF’s new framework for action in Wales, Prosperity without Poverty, is a contribution, emphasising actions which can be taken within, or be influenced by, Wales.
So what needs to be different?
Employment is for most people the most important route for escaping poverty. Action on jobs and in-work poverty needs to be integrated into the heart of economic development policy in Wales. Underemployment is as big an issue as unemployment: low pay goes hand in hand with low hours for too many people.
This includes developing strategies for low-paid industries and their productivity alongside the focus on high value-added business. Areas such as social care will continue to be crucial to future employment. Wales should actively encourage employment practices that reduce poverty, including greater job security, good quality part-time work and supporting career progression as well as promoting the Living Wage.
It should prioritise inclusive growth in the strategies for the new Welsh city regions so that all people and places benefit. Ideas for incentivising growth in disadvantaged areas include a New Enterprise Zone for the Valleys and ‘growth poles’ in disadvantaged areas to help counterbalance the coastal pull. The Welsh Government commitment to ‘better jobs closer to home’ needs to be accelerated and deepened, for example through local ‘anchor’ institutions using their purchasing power to promote more and better job opportunities.
The systems and workforce focussed on supporting people into work should be organised around the core target of reducing poverty through higher employment and earnings, not just getting people into a job. This means action on reducing the disability and ethnic minority employment gaps. The Welsh Government’s welcomed commitment to a new employability programme will be stronger the more it can bring together DWP and devolved provision, be tailored to people’s needs and provide levels of support that reflect an individual’s distance from the labour market rather than their age or benefit entitlement.
Action is needed to reduce the costs of living, whether the additional needs faced by, for example, disabled people or the costs of essential goods and services such as housing, food, water and domestic fuel. Affordable housing, low-cost local transport, enhanced financial advice, energy efficiency all form part of this agenda.
A continued commitment to strengthening families, whether parenting support or improving the availability and quality childcare, is vital. But we also need to be galvanising community action – involving people with first-hand experience of poverty, as in Glasgow and Leeds, and fostering connections between community groups and public services.
Clearly, this is not just about government, crucial as it is. Action by employers, trade unions, providers of essential goods and others must all be part of the mix.
JRF, working closely with the Bevan Foundation, will be working over the coming months to develop the framework further.
About the author: Michael Trickey is the the Wales Advisor for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. He is also the Programme Director for Wales Public Services 2025, and was previously employed as a senior civil servant in the Welsh Assembly Government.