Campaigners seeking to draw attention to the worst effects of hard times on family poverty rightly cite the growing use of food banks to illustrate severe deprivation in the UK. But while about 200,000 children were in families using foodbanks last year, about 30 times this number – six million children – were on low income, as defined by being below the Minimum Income Standard (MIS), the centrepiece of our research at CRSP. As with foodbank users, the numbers have been growing steadily.
This begs the question of what life is like for families below MIS. The standard is based on what members of the public consider to be an essential minimum to meet physical essentials and participate in society. But do people experiencing a lower living standard feel that they are going without?
Our research team, Katherine Hill, Abigail Davis and Lydia Marshall, talked in depth to 30 parents with incomes below MIS but not in deep poverty, to find out. The report, out today, paints a varied picture about families who feel that they are getting by, and others who are clearly struggling on a low income.
The study provides valuable evidence demonstrating that people below MIS – many of whom are working and not below the official ‘poverty line’ – face the risk of both social exclusion and material hardship, with outcomes ranging from never being able to take a holiday as a family to parents skipping meals to provide for their children. These findings confirm previous studies of low family income, but show that its consequences affect a wide range of families today: over a third are below the MIS line. However, the two most interesting areas of the study’s findings, in my view, concern the factors affecting the chances of low income families and the choices that they take.
Some parents in the study seemed to be coping remarkably well on low income. Typically, they were highly organised and worked hard to eke out their scarce resources, looking carefully for the best deals and being disciplined about not getting into debt. Others were fighting an uphill battle, finding it hard to afford the basics, juggling debts, always feeling skint. What distinguished these families was not just personal qualities but the situation they found themselves in – often because of factors beyond their control.
Extended family support can really help, in avoiding the worst effects of low income. Grandparents often make it possible for mums to work, by being around for childcare, while others without this advantage found it hard to juggle work and care and some felt they needed to wait until their children were at secondary school to do more than very part-time work. What struck me even more than this “informal care” advantage was how grandparents could be financial back-up – helping out when there was a crisis or helping fund a holiday, children’s activities or trips out. These opportunities to do more than just survive can make a huge difference to a child growing up on a low income.
Another factor that struck me about a low income family’s chances and living standards was how many (in fact most of our sample) had at least one member with a health problem. This probably reflects that ill health can be a contributory cause and not just an effect of low income. It is certainly a limiting factor in many people’s lives, adding to costs and often restricting the capacity to earn of someone in ill health themselves or caring for a sick child.
Among other factors affecting families’ chances, the most important were those determining the stability of income and life situation. Precarious employment and the uncertainties of renting a home from a private landlord (which a quarter of families now do, more than in social housing), together with family instability, deny families the stability that they crave, because they fear uncertainty and lack of control.
A key research question of the study was what happens when a family does not have enough to afford a minimum living standard: what do they prioritise and what do they give up? Some of the answers were straightforward and unsurprising. Keeping homes warm and food on the table have a high priority; having a holiday may have to go by the board this year. Others reflected previous research on low income. Parents prioritise the needs of their children – for example barely socialising as adults, rarely buying clothes for themselves, in order that children’s are not disadvantaged, both materially and socially.
But an interesting perspective was that when money is short, families do not simply meet what is described as minimum needs, minus a set of things that they choose to forego. Rather, they find different ways of structuring their spending. For example, if you can’t afford to go on holiday or go out to the cinema, you may invest more in creating family entertainment in the home – potentially subscribing to paid-for television. Middle class commentators who have a rich social life outside the home may consider this to be an unnecessary frivolity. To the family concerned, it may be meeting the social need for family interaction in a highly cost-effective manner. This helps explain a frequently lack of understanding in the public discourse on the lifestyles of people on low incomes. I hope that today’s report – which is full of fascinating examples and insights, and makes a good read – will help in a small way to inform that discourse.