“It is not nice. It is not a nice feeling. I am snappy and stressed. I don’t know if I can make the school uniform payment next month and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to go on holiday next year. I don’t know if I’m going to be in work next year or back on benefits. I don’t know if we’ll have another repossession order on our home and I don’t know what the future holds in the long term”.
This year the UK employment rate hit 74 per cent – that’s the highest since records began in 1971. But for many, gaining employment with low wages or a zero-hours contract is not enough to lift them out of poverty. It’s not a brief or temporary experience either, people get stuck; most people regularly in work do not escape from low pay over a ten-year period.
The Skills Network is a women’s cooperative in Lambeth working together to survive and confront the hostile conditions of austerity. Throughout 2015 they conducted a participatory research project, gathering stories of women in their community who find themselves in poverty despite being in work. This month they launch their report, What's Our Story, including voices and recommendations from mothers from a range of backgrounds and life experiences.
The identities of the women were protected so that they could not be identified by employers or others who knew them as there is a lot of shame and sensitivity around some of the topics such as debt.
“When I started work, I actually thought it would be easier - you know just life in general, would just be a little easier - but it’s not,” said one interviewee.
In answer to the question, what does the phrase ‘in-work poverty’ mean to you, one woman responded: “Just always feeling like you’re stretching, you always just feel like everything is stretching”.
Tight daily budgeting and escalating debts were common concerns. Vital expenses such as children’s school clothes are not always met:
“Yes she has a school uniform, but that I bought bit by bit over the six week holiday, and her shoes are just bursting through now. We were walking home having a conversation and I said ‘you have got to make them last, please make them last! You’ve only got about eight weeks left of school’ so I will be getting out the superglue at the weekend and sticking them back together. And if they do fall apart it will just be a pair of black Primark pumps I’m afraid, to last her, because she goes to secondary school this September and I’m absolutely dreading it, because obviously it’s a blazer, and equipment, it’s going to be a nightmare, I’m not looking forward to it at all”.
The women took issue with language used by politicians and the media including the rhetoric of hardworking families. The report concludes that ‘hardworking families’ can not individually overcome entrenched privilege and inequalities, or change the precarious, insecure circumstances in which they work - historically such action has required solidarity and collectivity.
As historian and writer Selina Todd outlines: ‘’hardworking families’ implies we’re only entitled to citizenship if we can prove we’re working our fingers to the bone. No one can work all the time; if you’re a pensioner, a single parent, sick, or there is no work to be had, then you’re in trouble’.
The UK working hours are the third longest in the EU and one in five parents believe they are so stretched by work that they only give their child full attention once a week. New policies to ‘help’ parents, such as the extension of free childcare may perversely strengthen this dynamic.
The women surveyed in Lambeth felt it would be more helpful to have shorter working days, flexible working hours and an acknowledgment of the different ways people contribute to society. The many hours of unpaid domestic labor which parents and carers do take valuable working time but are not recognised by the job centre, for instance.
“In Africa we have less money and we have less stuff to support ourselves. But on the other hand we have the privilege of being a mother” said one research participant.
The language of aspiration used by politicians and the media also provoked a strong response:
“I think the word is wrong. Aspiration suggests you’re somehow trying to get to the top of the tree. For me, the aspiration would be to think alternatively – what is the best quality of life I can have that supports other people around me? Otherwise people have lost their human value.. and I don’t want to aspire to that. I do want to go on holiday sometimes and buy my children decent clothes, but not at the expense of other people.”
‘Aspiration’ has been prominent in Conservative rhetoric in recent years and after the 2015 election key figures in the Labour party adopted the term too. According to the report, the aspiration narrative imposes simple identities on people who are in fact complex with multiple needs and desires.
“I get really angry by the idea that people have ‘no aspirations’” said one woman, “More the case that their ambitions don’t hit your criteria”.
Extensive research shows in-work poverty and austerity in general disproportionately affects women. And there is more to poverty than a lack of money. Lack of choice, feeling stuck in a rut, not being able to plan for the future and a reduced sense of self-worth are all part of the emotional toll that poverty can take.
The research of the Skills Network found a huge gap between women’s expectations of work and the reality. The report shows that it is easy for people to take the blame for this on themselves, rather than understanding it as a wider issue of social inequality. In some cases the mental and emotional cost is severe - mothers worried about passing stress on to their children and with pressures mounting from employers, job centre, debt collectors, teachers and even friends, its easy to be made to feel as though they are failing as a worker, as a mother, or both.
The Skills Network itself is just one way that women in difficult circumstances are supporting one another. They offer free training and skill-sharing, and their vision is of 'a society in which different types of knowledge and different ways of learning, seeing and being are equally valued'.
Report launch: 26 February, 5-7pm at The Brixton Pound Shop, 3 Atlantic Rd, London SW9 8HX, where there will be presentations by researchers, copies of the reports, displays of art work (featured above) and excerpts from the original interviews. For more about this project see inworkpoverty.wordpress.com