“Due to the nature of substituting (casual work on an as/when needed basis) I never know how much work I will have or how much money I will earn..…With kids to support and bills to pay I need as reliable an income as I can get.” (SVP and SPARK, 2016)
This week it was reported that the unemployment rate is at an all-time post-recession low of 7.1%. During the years of spiralling unemployment, SVP continued to support families as they coped with the devastating consequences of job loss and social welfare cuts. News that the tide appears to be turning is welcome. Nevertheless, as the government approach their target of full employment, we must focus on the nature and impact of low paid, precarious work on family poverty and well-being.
Successive governments have promoted that employment is the best route out of poverty, but being at work does not always guarantee a good standard of living. For example, in 2014, 14% of those living below the poverty line and 25% of those who were experiencing deprivation were working. The reality of this is reflected in the work of SVP volunteers who regularly visit and assist working families who are struggling to make ends meet on an insecure income. More often than not these families are employed in low hour or part time work. Indeed, the OECD suggest that in-work poverty is often the result of low hours, rather than low pay – increases in minimum wage alone doesn’t guarantee someone will be lifted out of poverty; adequate hours are also needed.
Families trapped in insecure work can experience significant stress and strain as uncertain work schedules and income impact their ability to plan childcare and transport, and budget for housing and everyday costs. We also know that precarious work also complicates entitlements to in-work social welfare benefits. The Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice recently examined the relationship between low hours work and income adequacy. They found that the difference in weekly (minimum wage) income for a one parent family working 19 hours versus 18 hours per week is 88 euro. This large difference is due to additional income from the Family Income Supplement (eligibility for FIS kicks in at 19 hours per week or 38 hours over two weeks). So when a family is trying to budget week to week, even small changes in working hours can have a dramatic impact on household finances, and may push a family into crisis.
Measures to address in-work poverty are not straightforward, and relate to discussions on the living wage, low/zero hour contracts, tax credits, in-work social welfare benefits, cost of living, and the accessibility of training, education and good quality childcare. SVP welcomed the introduction of the Back to Work Family Dividend in 2015, the increase in the earning disregard for One Parent Family Payment recipients in Budget 2017, and the opportunity to contribute to the forthcoming Affordable Childcare Scheme – measures that should go some way to making work pay for low income families. However, as the numbers moving into employment increases, attention must be paid to those working in precarious, low hour jobs. At a time when the labour market demands ‘flexibility’, government policy must address the needs of working families trying to get by on an insecure income.
It is clear that the current social welfare system does not provide a consistent approach to supporting people engaged in low hours work. In particular, lone parents have to navigate a complex system of income support, where eligibility varies depending on the age of their youngest child. In the coming months, a process of consultation on a proposed Working Families Payment will commence and we look forward to engaging with the Department of Social Protection on these issues.