Who are the “just about managing” and why are they Jams? We might consider the million households identified by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) thinktank this week as in income crisis, meaning they can’t afford to pay two or more essential bills at any one time. They struggle with council tax, energy and water demands. Rent arrears were less common but hardly unknown: for many low-income tenants the very act of signing on to universal credit is a virtual guarantee of rent arrears.
Even if you manage to pay the rent, this can be at a price. The Food Standards Agency estimates that almost 4 million UK adults experience food insecurity, which means they don’t eat regularly or healthily because of a lack of money. These are “Jams” too (or perhaps more accurately, not really managing). And what about the 1.6 million people who, according to a recent National Audit Office study, disconnect their energy supply at least once a year because they can’t afford to top up prepayment meters?
The conventional government view is that this familiar juggling act performed by poorer Jams is their own fault. If only they earned more, had better money management skills, could cook, wore a second woolly jumper in winter, or held off giving birth to excessive numbers of children. Poverty, it is suggested, is a deficit of life skills caused by laziness and benefit dependency, fixable principally by work and the supposedly character-building withdrawal of social security support.
And yet the IPPR finds that two-thirds of households in income crisis have at least one adult in work; employment may help, but it doesn’t always solve a problem. One in six adults who worry the food cupboard will be empty before the next pay cheque arrives are in work. This is no surprise. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a record 7 million people in poverty are in working families. It found the causes transparently structural: lack of money, driven in part by the crushingly expensive and insecure rents in private housing.
So how to help? We still await a social justice green paper (known under previous management as the “Life Chances” paper), with its promised aim of addressing the root causes of poverty and disadvantage. In its continuing absence, this week we got the first of a series of initiatives designed to tackle “the problems that prevent families from getting on in life”. Its worthy, if painfully modest, aim is a £30m programme to reduce parental conflict. If you are not already underwhelmed, consider that ministers also promise an expansion of the disturbingly inadequate troubled families programme.
Consider instead what ministers are actively doing to make things harder for the Jams. Also this week (this list is not exhaustive) we see the introduction of the two-child limit to child tax credits (pitching 250,000 children into poverty, 70% from working families); the £30 a week cuts to some employment and support allowance payments (an incentive to find work, supposedly, for people who have been found unfit to work); a renewed freeze to benefit rates (making it harder for people to afford sufficient food, as Brexit-related inflation sends prices soaring); and a further local housing allowance rates freeze (making rents even more crushingly unaffordable).
“I don’t want any child to be defined by the circumstances of their birth,” the work and pensions secretary, Damian Green, declared this week, seemingly unaware that the multibillion social security cuts he is helming confer the scarring and restrictive legacy of poverty on millions of children from low-income households. What’s more, these cuts (like the slashing of universal credit work allowances, and giving away billions in tax breaks for the wealthy) are inherited practically untouched from George Osborne. It’s feeble stuff. If Theresa May is serious about rebalancing society in favour of ordinary working people, she is going a funny way about it.