Workless families: a convenient untruth | Editorial | Comment is free | The Guardian

Workless families: a convenient untruth

A belief in inherited underclass idleness is spreading, but in reality multiple generations who have never worked is very rare

As the Commons debated welfare on Wednesday, Anna Soubry – one of the ablest new Tories – insisted that “often third generation” long-term unemployed could not be “exempt from the real world”. A belief in couch-bound idleness as an inherited underclass trait is spreading. Iain Duncan Smith talks of communities in which “three generations of the same family have [often] never worked”, and David Cameron punts variants of the same factoid. It is not just Conservatives who believe in estates where the meaning of work has dropped from living memory: Labour’s Barry Sheerman recently urged understanding jobless youths in the context of their workless families.

It is not hard to see the appeal, for the right, of stories about “Shameless estates“. The coalition’s unprecedented benefit cuts require a justification, and the idea that welfare consigns whole communities to the scrapheap strengthens the case for drastic action. Sketching a feral underclass, not moored in ordinary morals or everyday practices such as working, also creates useful political distance between the mainstream and the marginalised, who face the deepest cuts. But for the British left too, so often weirdly nostalgic, there is a certain appeal in tales of hope having been extinguished across swaths of modern society.

The “never-worked families” hypothesis is convenient for ministers and alarmist columnists, but is it in any way true? Important new work from the authoritative CMPO thinktank at Bristol University explores how disadvantage trickles down the generations – but also takes a cool look at the facts. Using the best official data, the research confirms worklessness is a major problem: in 3.7m working-age households, 18% of the total, nobody has a job. But two-generational worklessness is far rarer – workless parents and grown-up children are found together in only 0.9% of households. As for homes with two generations that have never worked, the fraction drops further, to less than 0.1% of the total. Of course there will be some “never-worked” families where children have flown the nest, but the little data available suggests these, too, are uncommon.

The truly double-generation long-term unemployed family is, then, a rare species. As for the politicians’ “third-generation” perma-idlers, these are on the critically endangered list – if not entirely fictional. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation set out to identify and investigate 20 such “never-worked” families in deprived Glasgow and Teesside, but it found not a single one. The reality is not permanent idleness, but permanent insecurity. Yes, there are individuals who give up on the jobs market, but most have relatives who flip between low pay and unemployment. It is a complex picture – tough to caricature and tougher to address. But it has the merit of being true.