Work and Pay

There is a difference between "workless" and "never worked"

  • Published: May 25, 2012
  • Author: Tom MacInnes
  • Category: Work and Pay

Twice in the last week, MPs have made confused and confusing statements about the number of workless households in the UK. This confusion demonstrates a misunderstanding of the problem, which can only have worrying implications for policy making. 

The first person to make this mistake was Frank Field, the erstwhile government poverty adviser. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph (since edited, with the error removed, but the quote is still available on the Liberal Conspiracy website) he said, when talking about immigration to the UK

“It’s come to a head because I found out that one in five households has never ever had work”

This is not correct – it’s more like one in fifty.

Then, on Newsnight on Wednesday, Conservative MP Harriet Baldwin’s made the same mistake. During a  discussion of welfare reform, (which followed a piece that presented a working mother as a benefit scrounger whom the journalist suggested should return to live with her parents), Baldwin said

“With … a doubling of the number of workless households under the previous Government I think it is incredibly important that we reform the benefit system”

This was also wrong – the number of workless households was only slightly higher in 2010 than it was in 1997. 

In both cases, the MPs confused workless households with households where no adult has ever worked. A workless household is one with one or more working age adults, none of whom are currently in paid employment. A household where no one has ever worked has at least one working age adult, none of whom have ever been in paid work. 

The graph below shows both, and how they have changed over time. From it, we can identify the source of the confusion.

Graph 1 – Workless households, 1996 - 2011

We can see that around one in five households in 2011 (actually 19%) were workless. Frank Field incorrectly claimed this referred to households that had never worked (rather than those that are just not working at the moment). Harriet Baldwin’s error was the other way around – the proportion of households who have never worked has doubled, from 1% to 2%. Bu the proportion of households that are workless was really no different in 2010, when Labour left office, than in 1997, when it was elected. 

Focussing on this 2% of households, our Monitoring report last year for the Joseph Rowntree Foundationshowed that over half of the adults living in these households were aged under 25. In their case, “Never worked” could mean “Has not worked since leaving university”, which is to say, has not worked for a couple of years. A lot of what is being picked up here is another manifestation of record levels of unemployment among young adults. This is not to underplay the problem, but it is clearly different from long term unemployment among, for instance, people aged 50 or older. 

Obviously there are basic issues of competence and understanding here: one would like MPs to know the difference between a debt and a deficit and the difference between someone not doing something currently and someone not ever having done that thing in their entire lives. 

But the real reason why this matters is that it impacts on policy making. Presenting worklessness as some kind of long term condition ignores more immediate problems. Unemployment is up by around one million since the start of the recession. There is a problem of huge turnover in the labour market - around half of people making a new claim for Job Seeker’s Allowance were working for less than six months since their previous claim. There is also rising job insecurity, as an increasing number of jobs are part time and/ or self-employed

It’s also a matter of scale. There are 560,000 adults living in households where no one has ever worked. This equates to less than one tenth of the 6 million plus people currently underemployed. This ill-informed discussion of long-term worklessness distracts from the much bigger and critical problem - a basic lack of jobs.

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