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Is having a job the single most important way out of poverty?

Last year GMPA Director Tom Skinner launched a series of articles on in-work poverty, asking “Is work the best route out of poverty?” Here Bolton Councillor Sue Haworth unpicks that question by exploring the changes in evidence over the last ten years.

The Prime Minister often declares at the despatch box that the best solution to poverty is for people to have jobs. But there are two stand out issues pertaining to this that we must address in Greater Manchester. The first is the fact that not all our citizens here in GM are able to take up paid employment. Mostly these are people with long term ill health problems and / or disability. Under devolution we have a responsibility to prevent worsening poverty in these people’s lives and to encourage them to volunteer and to stay included in communities in GM. The new Work and Health programme in GM can act to prevent all the dimensions of poverty in non-working people’s lives and seek tangible benefits for people and their families.

Secondly, we must unpick what the Prime Minister means by her statement. Work is a source of income and it is also a source of all round economic wellbeing, while poverty has many facets, for example relative and absolute poverty, and poverty of self determination and equality.

There is growing evidence in GM of a tipping point regarding these effects; make work too insecure, make the income stream from the work too variable or too low, and the benefit rapidly starts to wane. If the experience of work is low pay, persistent stress and poor working conditions, again a tipping point is exceeded, where the benefit of work becomes overshadowed by the daily negative experience of poor quality work.

Only five to ten years ago I was persuaded by the public health knowledge base in England that work was likely the number one factor that contributed to a person’s health and wellbeing. But this evidence is now under the microscope by today’s generation of academics, building the knowledge base on inclusive growth, work and poverty here in GM. Reports are already warning us of the tipping point effect that poor quality work is having in people’s lives in GM.

Work is no longer the poverty panacea we were working towards five or ten years ago. Reports from The Inclusive Growth Analysis Unit at The University of Manchester make it clear that we must address the quality of work with as much vigour here as we do tackling unemployment. Pay, terms, working conditions and underemployment are vital components of the work and poverty agenda in GM today.