I worry about the dental health of staff working for organisations tackling domestic poverty. Norman Tebbit’s pronouncement last week on families using foodbanks to stock up on the basics while spending benefits on junk food must have caused a spike in teeth grinding.

The ammunition we’ve got about the growth of in-work poverty is stacking up. Today’s publication of the Plymouth Fairness Commission’s report has just added to it.

Plymouth’s clearly got some major problems with inequality; the average life expectancy in the most deprived areas is lower than the Lebanon, while in the least deprived it’s higher than Japan.

But it’s the visible signs of growing in-work poverty in the city that provide another timely rebuttal to the current rhetoric coming out of Westminster. The report suggests, with admirable restraint that, ‘While people on low incomes are used to being told that work is the best route out of poverty, it’s a mantra which is not, unfortunately, borne out by the facts.’

The PFC report echoes the findings of last year’s New Policy Institute research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that, for the first time, more working families in the UK are living in poverty than non-working ones. This is having a particularly severe impact on Plymouth, which appears to be a pretty low-wage economy to start with. A fifth of Plymouth’s households earn less than £16,000 a year; half are on less than £20,000. Since 2008, the city’s lost 1,000 full time public sector jobs and gained 1,500 part time private sector jobs.

There’s a case study in the report from the charity, Plymouth Foodbank which might give Norman pause for thought. In 2012, 5,900 people visited the Foodbank, in 2013 that grew to 7,400 and their estimate for 2014 is that 9,000 people will come to them for help. And these are just the figures from one small Foodbank.

It’s not just the growing numbers that Maria Mills, Plymouth Foodbank’s project manager, has noticed, but the types of people being referred and where those referrals are coming from. “Benefit delays when people’s circumstances change are causing real problems”, she reports, “the amount of time it takes to make the changes and give people their money is just too long. We’re also seeing a rise in the number of people getting in-work benefits affected by food poverty. They’re working, but their wages are too low to make ends meet.”

And, since the abolition of Social Fund Crisis Loans by central government in April 2013, she’s seen an increase in referrals from the Job Centre and the Emergency Welfare Centre.

“With no crisis loans available, it seems Foodbanks are increasingly regarded as a third arm of the state. Without the funding of course.”

The Guardian reported earlier this month that the Department for Work and Pensions has issued guidelines to jobcentres on referring people to foodbanks. The DWP responds that they are merely ‘signposting’ claimants to help and that ‘foodbanks are absolutely not part of the welfare system because we have other ways of supporting people.’

We appear to have tumbled down the rabbit hole, where words mean whatever Government departments like the DWP want them to mean. Work clearly isn’t paying for growing numbers of people. People are being directed (sorry, ‘signposted’) to foodbanks when they go to job centres. But the state doesn’t have to fund foodbanks because ‘there are other ways of supporting them.’

As the debate about welfare caps rumbles on, the real issue of poverty wages gets far less column inches. Not only does the PFC’s report provides more evidence to redress this balance, it provides solid city-wide recommendations to tackle them. A commitment from the City Council and universities to pay the Living Wage, a recommendation that private sector employers do so within three years, better use of licensing to crack down on payday lenders, an expanded role for credit unions and – not least – national demands that the current benefits fiasco is resolved. I hope its evidence is heard. The alternative makes my teeth hurt.

More information about the Plymouth Fairness Commission’s findings discussed in Rosie’s blog can be found at http://www.plymouthfairnesscommission.co.uk/

March 27th, 2014

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