Guest Blog: What does it really mean to be part of the 80%?

A guest blog for the Smallwood Trust by Tracey Franklin, Chief Executive of InSpire


At a recent meeting I attended, a Cabinet Member announced that Southwark Council is celebrating 80% employment rates, and rightly so. It’s a borough that’s invested a great deal in a range of employment projects for residents, including our InSpired to Work programme, supporting 18–25 year olds into meaningful employment and aspirational roles, and supporting them to stay in work once they get there.


Nationally employment rates are higher than ever, youth employment is up, women in work is up, BME people in employment is up, over 50s in employment is at a record high. Yet behind these ‘employment is better than ever’ headlines are all those people, young and old, male and female, who despite now being in that 80% are still poor. I don’t mean poor ‘can’t afford a holiday’ or poor ‘can’t afford some driving lessons’; I mean living in poverty, using the food bank, unable to buy school uniforms for their children, huge rent arrears, or living on friends sofas. The list goes on…

How can this be? A multitude of factors contribute to in-work poverty — low wages, zero or variable hours contracts (translating to little and/or erratic work), the rising cost of living, especially in inner cities, and extreme housing markets that mean even someone on a secure £30k a year salary will struggle to make the rent on a modest flat in the borough if they still want to eat and pay their bills. Then factor in having a child/children, or massive student debts, or caring responsibilities. Or all three. Or being called about a shift that starts in 3 hours’ time when you have a counselling appointment booked or a child to pick up from school, then being labelled ‘inflexible’’ or ‘not motivated’ when you turn that shift down.


With it being widely accepted that (aside from the physical resources it allows to access) work is central to our identity, purpose and well-being, it’s hard to see how we can have a happy, secure, healthy population, despite employment being ‘better than ever’.


Thanks to The Smallwood Trust, a group of InSpire’s young mums recently had the opportunity to meet with the Bank of England and talk about their experiences of work, job hunting and living in poverty, of tax credits and universal credit and the challenge of negotiating a system that should help you but instead can feel like it penalises you for trying. The Bank of England asked our group ‘but isn’t employment better than it’s ever been?’ And this is the problem, a hidden problem far from the eyes of most decision makers, but visible in the queues for food banks, oversubscribed community services and temporary accommodation/homelessness stats. We thank Chief Economist Andy Haldane and his team for listening to us and taking a real interest in our service users experiences, hearing from them about their reality.


Of course, it isn’t all gloomy. For InSpire, for example, our SEEDS programme works with local SMEs to place young people in London Living Wage jobs, with guaranteed hours, good T&C and ongoing support for both employer and employee. Funders appear increasingly willing to look past pure ‘job outcomes’ and into the quality of those outcomes, and to measuring the progression and impact for the individual and their careers rather than just checking a box. Many organisations are campaigning and raising awareness.


Real change will come from policy, from Living Wages (not minimum wages), and from changes to the rules of the private rented sector. Until then, organisations like InSpire, like The Smallwood Trust, like Working Chance will keep working with those most in need to support them to get the best they can in a flawed environment, to increase their chances, skills and confidence to navigate this minefield. But no amount of skills or confidence can make up for the prevailing poor pay, poor contracts and insecure, unaffordable housing.


Tracey Franklin is the Chief Executive of InSpire, a community organisation in South East London at the centre of a large regeneration area. Witnessing day to day the growing disparity between the richest and the poorest residents of the borough, the distance between them and the many things that bring them together, InSpire’s mission is to build the confidence, life skills and aspirations of Walworth residents so that, despite the challenges they face, individuals, families and the community can thrive. You can find out more about us at www.in-spire.org.uk


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