Lockdown saw couples share housework and childcare more evenly – but these changes didn’t last

Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Susan Harkness, University of Bristol

It may feel like a common occurrence today, but if you cast your mind back to the first COVID lockdown, having whole families working and studying from home was a very unfamiliar situation. And it was one that had unfamiliar consequences.

For opposite-sex couples, lockdown disrupted the traditional gender division of household chores. In research that my colleagues and I conducted, we found that having both partners at home saw men increase how much of the domestic burden they took on, so that women’s typically greater share decreased.

We discovered this by analysing data from Understanding Society, a big longitudinal household panel study – the largest of its kind. The study follows a sample of UK households, periodically asking them questions to see how their lives are changing. Between April 2020 and September 2021, its participants were asked to complete web surveys every few months specifically about the impact of the pandemic on their lives.

We looked at responses from people of working age who were in opposite-gender relationships that continued throughout this period of COVID surveying. This provided a final sample of just over 2,000 couples for us to analyse. Here’s what we discovered.

Lockdown shocks

The couples were asked about the gender division of housework during the first lockdown, and we then compared this with information collected from pre-lockdown surveys carried out during 2019. The couples were also asked whether those changes persisted when the first lockdown eased. On top of this, we also compared the changes experienced by those with no children at home and those with children of various ages.

What we saw was that overall, women’s share of housework fell from 65% pre-COVID to 60% during the first lockdown. So initially there was a moderate amount of gender rebalancing in the sharing of domestic work. However, by September 2020 the old gender divisions were being re-established. By this point, women were on average doing 62% of housework.

These changes coincided with changes in working behaviour. Overall, the findings showed that both men’s and women’s paid working hours reduced substantially in the spring of 2020 but had recovered by September.

A woman vacuuming a rug
Despite some rebalancing, on average a sizeable majority of the domestic burden still fell on women.
Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

And during the spring lockdown, around a third of both male and female respondents were employed but working from home. However, this had fallen to just under a quarter by September. Similarly, around one in five women and one in seven men were furloughed in the spring, but this had dropped to fewer than one in 20 by September.

This seems to suggest that having both members of a couple at home, with less time committed to work, leads to the domestic burden being more evenly shared.

Having both family members spending more time at home also appears to have led to there being more housework to be done. Both men and women increased their weekly hours of domestic work during lockdown – from 12.5 to 15.5 for women and from 6.5 to 10 for men. Come September 2020, these figures had fallen again, though they remained above their pre-lockdown levels.

Childcare burdens

However, the rebalancing of work wasn’t consistent across the couples we looked at. The extent of the change depended on the number and age of the couple’s children.

When the respondents were split into three groups – those who had no children living at home, those who had children under the age of five and those who had older children – marked differences emerged.

For couples without children at home, women’s share of domestic labour fell during the spring and continued to fall after the summer. Though these women still did more domestic work than their partners, their input did not return to pre-COVID levels as 2020 progressed.

For those with children aged between six and 15, the drop in women’s share of housework had partially reversed by September, but it hadn’t fully bounced back. In the autumn they were still doing less than before the pandemic.

But for those with children under five, the drop in women’s share of housework had reversed completely by September. This was despite the initial drop in the spring having been greater for this group compared to the other two.

Family dynamics

So what do we make of this? In terms of family dynamics, the lockdown may have had more lasting effects for some families than for others. Fears that advances in gender equality could be reversed during the pandemic were more real for those with very young children, who were much less able to keep themselves busy with other tasks and whose children were not old enough to make use of online education.

One important reason for the division of labour changing during lockdown was men’s and women’s working hours. Women with young children tended to reduce their paid working hours more as the pandemic progressed in order to take on the increased burden of care that stemmed from schools and nurseries being closed.

A grandfather and grandson walking outside
Having family support nearby will have influenced how much childcare and housework couples did.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Our study shows that changes to family life during the pandemic were nuanced, with different family set-ups resulting in different changes to the balance of housework and the rebalancing of work changing over time. Indeed, there may be further nuances that we’re yet to fully identify.

In the future, it would be good to look at whether extended family networks were able to alleviate the increased care burden for some families. We could also look at how the pandemic affected the mental health of women with and without children, and it would be useful to see whether different countries’ lockdowns affected families differently as well.The Conversation

Susan Harkness, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Centre for Poverty and Social Justice, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Collateral damage: the implications of border restrictions on practitioners working with refugee populations

Blog by Dr Vicky Canning, Senior Lecturer, School for Policy Studies

The acknowledgement that asylum systems across Europe are “hostile environments” for migrant groups has increased in academic and practitioner consciousness, particularly in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee reception crisis. However, although the impacts of socio-political hostilities on migrants are well documented, little has been written about the implications of border restrictions on practitioners working with refugee populations. Research led by Vicky Canning, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the School for Policy Studies, expands the focus of hostilities to consider the variable impacts of intensified bordering practices on this group.

Based on qualitative research which included 74 interviews undertaken across Britain, Denmark, and Sweden (2016–2018), the research outlines the experiences of practitioners working with refugee populations. It highlights that increasingly restrictive or punitive approaches to immigration have had multiple negative effects on practitioners working in this sector. This has potential for longer term negative impacts on practitioners, but also – importantly – refugee populations who require various forms of legal aid, or social and psychological support.

Working with refugee groups can be a fundamentally complex task. Whilst roles differ (such as lawyers, psychologists, or advocates and support workers), the experiences of people seeking asylum or living as refugees can impact on people supporting them in various ways. Likewise, the working conditions of practitioners is often reflected in the standard of care that they are able to offer when supporting people with complex lives, refugees and survivors of violence and persecution in particular. Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue[1] are two of the most commonly cited problems in working in this area.

Emotional and Workplace Impacts on Practitioners

Interviews with practitioners indicate concerning additions to these potential problems: increasingly restrictive or punitive approaches to immigration which have had multiple effects on practitioners working in this sector. Indeed, one stark issue highlighted through interviews with lawyers, psychologists, detention custody officers, and support workers is that they felt their ability to effectively perform their own role well has been compromised. Some indicated increasing levels of stress and, in Sweden in particular (a strong state centric welfare model), a decreased faith in state and state decisions. Terms such as ‘powerless’ and ‘stress’ were included in responses to questions about the impacts of escalated harms in asylum – in particular that practitioners did not feel they could support people seeking asylum whilst they are being held in an indefinite state of uncertainty or crisis.

Practitioners found that changes in legislation or ‘rules’ meant that they constantly had to change their own approaches. Keeping up to date with the workings of the asylum process is increasingly difficult at a time when laws and policies are changing regularly, and thus affecting the rights or welfare entitlements that people seeking asylum can access. This is particularly difficult for people who are working with refugee groups as a means to providing humanitarian assistance, as they find themselves in positions where they are implementing laws they cannot agree with. For example, an employee of a humanitarian organisation working at Center Sandholm indicated, ‘I find it really, really difficult, this neutrality, impartiality concept, and increasingly so. Every time we have to enforce new, stricter rules that have only been put in place to put pressure on people [to leave]’.

Practitioners working with survivors of trauma or sexual violence raised concerns about their client’s inability to focus on therapy, counselling or integration programmes due to risk of dispersal or other exacerbations of illnesses. People seeking asylum can be more concerned with pressing issues arising in the immediate future, such as the threat of homelessness, fear of detention or deportation, or concern for family and friends still residing in areas of conflict or migrating across borders.

An integration project co-ordinator working in Denmark argued that, ‘it will only get worse. I mean there’s a culture of celebrating obstacles that we can put in people’s place… I mean unashamedly celebrating making it hard for people to access asylum and protective status’. This prediction – recorded in summer of 2018 – has proved accurate. By the end of the year the Danish People’s Party and the Venstre-led government announced new restrictions in the Finance Act 2019 which directly aim to reduce opportunities for integration of migrants and people seeking asylum and instead push toward deportations and enforced removals (Clante Bendixen, 2019).  This includes a significant change relating to integration, as the term itself is no longer used in relation to asylum, as focus has changed to accelerating deportation.

The Trend Towards Disempowerment

Practitioners also highlighted feelings and experiences which ranged from sadness or upset to disempowerment and hopelessness. For people working in a deportation centre in Denmark, there was dismay at the lack of clarity regarding the expectations of their role and that their participation did not always have a positive impact,

‘I had days when I went home thinking that today I was definitely a part of the problem, not the solution, today my presence here was a band aid at best but the patient’s haemorrhaging and I’m not actually doing what I’m supposed to be doing.’

In some places, the limits to the support that practitioners are able to provide are not only affected by economic resources, but also managerial and policy decisions on what is or is not allowed. As one nurse in an immigration detention centre reflected, ‘You want to do more than you are allowed; you are not allowed to’.

The emotional effects of seeing people living in avoidable and degrading circumstances are also clear. Many felt that cuts to staffing or services reduced their ability to offer adequate support, as one women’s support worker in Scotland indicated, ‘It really is crippling ‘cause we can’t meet the needs. Literally turning people away every day who are in crisis, so that is awful’. Shortly after this interview, in 2016, the interviewee contacted me to say their role had been removed. To date, it has not been replaced.

Likewise, others disclosed feelings of discomfort at increasingly being part of a system or structure that they had not set out to work in. People spoke of their jobs being reduced from support to ‘managing expectations’ for people seeking asylum and of bureaucracy superseding their capacity to provide support. For example, a custody officer in a Swedish immigration detention centre felt the shifts in law were removing her from the humanitarian approach she had tried to embed in her practice: ‘they [detainees] assume that I am working for the evil government. They think that I don’t see them as human beings, living … I think it’s horrible’.

Breaking Trust

Finally, this research found that impacts on practitioners are exacerbated by increasing mistrust between people seeking asylum and governmental and non-governmental organisations, particularly in the UK and Sweden.

For others, the emotional impacts of the degradation of people seeking asylum were palpable, as a social worker in the North West of England suggests:

‘Sometimes we need to separate our feelings away from the client, but for the first time since I have worked in this field I felt as if I was about to cry when I went to the hospital because I’ve never seen somebody who has been neglected by the system like this woman I came across, because you don’t treat people like this, this is unacceptable in 21st century Britain’.

Practitioners often alluded to a loss of faith in humanitarianism in their respective states. One torture rehabilitation director remarked that, ‘they’re testing this unfortunately, a social experiment, how far they can get with their whip’, whilst a barrister in London questioned the rationale of governmental agendas, asking ‘Even if you accept the premise that migration is a problem and needs to be reduced, why don’t you wait to see what the last set of bad laws did before you bring in the next of the bad laws?’.

In Sweden, a typically state centric nation, the impacts of this increasing mistrust was strengthened with the introduction of the REVA Project – a collaboration between Swedish Police, the Migration Agency and prison service which targets people suspected of living illegally in Sweden so as to speed up detection and deportation – and which has received subsequent criticism for racism (see Barker, 2017; European Parliament, 2013).

Migrant groups and practitioners are therefore left in precarious positions: anyone without documentation or who is awaiting the outcome of an asylum claim may be subject to arrest and possible detention or deportation, whilst some practitioners simultaneously lose faith in governmental agendas and face reduced capacity to undertake their role due to external pressures.

The nationality and borders bill, now in the House of Lords for readings after being debated for only nine minutes in the House of Commons, will inevitably continue this trend, creating an ever more hostile environment towards migrants and in which practitioners working with refugee populations have to operate, a trend Dr Canning has critiqued elsewhere as degradation by design.

 

[1] The former relates to experiencing emotional or psychological distress based on hearing or responding to trauma experienced by others (Barrington and Shakespeare-Finch, 2013). The latter refers to the emotional implications which can develop for people working at the frontline of response to trauma or other social problems, but feel restricted in their ability to do so due to exhaustion or burnout (Ray et al, 2013).


This blog is based on research and analysis presented here:

Reimagining Refugee Rights: Addressing asylum harms in Britain, Denmark and Sweden

Managing Expectations: Impacts of Hostile Migration Policies on Practitioners in Britain, Denmark and Sweden (Open Access).


 

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Disability needs to be central in creating a more just and equal society

Professor Val Williams, from the Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies, discusses tackling disabled practices and how we all have a part to play in getting things changed.

When times get tough, disabled people always seem to go to the bottom of the pile. It’s as if the problem of ‘disability’ is always one step too far, or something which cannot be contemplated until everything else is sorted out. For instance, the debates about BREXIT have centred on trade agreements and free movement of citizens. How often do we talk about the rights of disabled people, and how they may be protected under existing EU legislation?

The UK itself has laws to protect disabled people’s rights, with the 2010 Equality Act. But constant vigilance is needed to remind public services that they have a duty to provide reasonable adjustments for disabled people. UK financial cuts are impacting most heavily on disabled people, and a recent report by the charity SCOPE highlights that, on average, for every £100 earned by a disabled person, only £67 is left after disability-related costs.

Disabled people certainly incur additional costs by virtue of their additional needs, but is disability too much of a ‘cost’ for society? We would argue that the reverse is true: economic, political or social crises create moments when disabled people must be at the forefront. This is what we have been documenting in our project ‘Getting Things Changed’ (Tackling Disabling Practices: Co-production and Change).

Disabled people have always faced problems which are created because society is structured without disability in mind.  For instance, the rail transport system assumes that all passengers can step over a gap between a train and the platform, that they can walk to their seat, and indeed that sitting in a ‘standardised’ seat is an option. At a more subtle level, we have also found countless practices in our study which exclude or marginalise disabled people. The way things routinely get done in everyday life can be problematic, and that can include the material infrastructure of a building as well as the ways in which people interact. For instance, people with dementia might rely on familiar, clear signage to find their way in and out of a building, or the facilities in it, but they also need people who will give them time to communicate, or understand how to wait for a response in a respectful way. In parts of our project, we are looking at the barriers disabled patients face in English hospitals. With regular news items about the crisis in the hospital system,  we know that change must happen.

We argue that this is the time to include disabled people, not just as recipients of care, but as change makers. Our project is co-produced with Disability Rights UK and with other groups of disabled people who are actively involved in the research. Given that disability is part of humanity, we should all be working WITH people with disabilities, to create a more just society where all are included.

Understanding a disabling society

So how can we start to understand why things get stuck? Since the 1980s and the introduction of the social model of disability, Disability Studies theory has focused considerable attention on the dichotomy between the social and medical model of disability. There have been continual debates since that time, with UK theorists arguing since the 1980s for a new understanding of disability and impairment. Oliver (2013) sums up neatly what the real issues are now:

“While all this chatter did not matter too much when the economy was booming, now it no longer booms it is proving disastrous for many disabled people whose benefits and services are being severely cut back or removed altogether”

Have disabled people’s lives become more restricted  since the 1980s, or have the concerns of disabled people themselves been overtaken by theoretical debate?  And how can we as activists and academics change that tide? In our recent article from ‘Getting Things Changed’ we argue that we need as a society to go further than debates about ‘what is disability’. The social model directed our attention towards the external barriers facing disabled people, and now we need to find better ways of analysing and understanding those barriers.  Many people use the word ‘culture’ here, to bemoan the difficulties caused by unhelpful attitudes and approaches which can be evident in congregate services such as care homes or hospital. In our study, we have turned towards the ideas of social practice theorists such as Elizabeth Shove, which have helped us to understand  how things get done, how practices get shaped – and therefore how we can get a handle on change.

An example from our wide-ranging project comes from the insights of people with dementia. Since 2009, we have had an English Government policy called ‘Living Well with Dementia’ . What matters for people with dementia is the quality of life they are leading right now, and our work with the ‘Forget-me-Not’ group from Swindon has helped us to unpick what this might mean.

Here are some words from the researchers with dementia from the Forget-me-Not group:

“Everyone will tell you the same thing. You’re diagnosed, and then it’s ‘You’ve got dementia. Go home and we’ll see you next month’. What we need is for someone, like a counsellor or someone else with dementia, to tell us at that point ‘Life isn’t over’.  You can go on for ten or fifteen years. And you’re not told, you’re just left. And I thought, tomorrow my day had come. The fear and the anxiety sets in, and then the depression sets in, doesn’t it? I think when you’re diagnosed, you should be given a book. And on the front of the book, in big letters, it should say: ‘Don’t panic’.”

In terms of social practice theory, these are people who do not want to be seen through a medical lens as individual tragedies, but are turning around the whole meaning of dementia into something where they are in control, can support each other and where they have a voice.  However, social practice theory also reminds us about the importance of material resources. For instance, in order to meet each other and to have a collective sense of peer support, people need to have spaces which are not institutionalised, which they feel they can ‘own’.  All too often, we have seen very well-intentioned group activities taking place in old, large halls, or where people are routinely sitting in configurations which make communication difficult. But we have also seen the Forget-me-Not group, in an ordinary, homely environment, where staff members interact on a basis of equality with the members who have dementia.

This is just one of many examples where we are finding that people CAN do things differently, and where the ‘culture’ can change towards inclusion and empowerment. We hope our research will provide the impetus to take some of this further.

Change will never be completed – but we will be presenting the latest research from our project and discussing some of these ideas at our launch event on 25 May. Book your place now to find out more about the many strands of the project how we can all be change-makers.

This post was written by Prof Val Williams with assistance from Prof Pauline Heslop, Beth Tarleton, Wendy Merchant, Bernd Sass and Joe Webb at the Norah Fry Centre for Centre for Disability Studies.

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Looked after children and the youth justice system

JS

Dr Jo Staines, Director of BSc Childhood Studies programmes, reports a on recent seminar held by the School for Policy Studies focusing on the over-representation of looking after children in the youth justice system.

Over 30 academics and practitioners from across the country came together last week to discuss how to reduce the over-representation of looked after children in the youth justice system. Inspired by the Prison Reform Trust’s recent Independent Review, In Care, Out of Trouble, this event drew on current research and examples of innovative practice to consider how policy and practice – and changes in attitude – can reduce the number of looked after children who become involved in offending behaviour and who are drawn into the youth justice system.

Statistics indicate that looked after children are five times more likely to be involved in the youth justice system than non-looked after children – although due to the vagaries of recording practices, this is likely to be an underestimate. A review of international research, which I summarised in the first session, helps to explain how looked after children’s early negative experiences, the potentially adverse influences of the care system, and structural criminalisation all combine to increase the likelihood that looked after children will come into contact with the youth justice system. Anne-Marie Day (University of Salford), Julie Shaw (Liverpool John Moores University), Claire Fitzpatrick (University of Lancaster) and Julie Selwyn (University of Bristol) added depth and detail to these theories, drawing from their current research with looked after children.

The key messages from the presentations and ensuing discussions emphasised children and young people’s need for stability – of placement, of social worker, of educational placement, and of support – and the need for trusting, lasting relationships was overwhelmingly apparent. The challenges faced in achieving this were highlighted, particularly by Tanya Grey and Jennie Mattinson of West Mercia police, who have the unenviable task of working with 19 different care providers and no less than 107 local authorities to develop appropriate, non-criminalising responses to looked after children’s challenging behaviour.

Katy Swaine Williams, from the Prison Reform Trust, gave an overview of the findings of their review and the reforms to policy and practice that were recommended. Chris Stevens (Surrey Youth Support Service), Jamie Gill (1625 Independent People) and Darren Coyne (The Care Leavers’ Association) all passionately introduced the work their organisations have undertaken to provide stability and support to looked after children and to reduce their involvement in the criminal justice system. As shown by these examples, and as highlighted within the Prison Reform Trust’s review, many examples of good practice exist – we know that reducing the number of looked after children who become young offenders can be done, as it is being done – but we need to act as a megaphone to transmit our knowledge about successful approaches and interventions, and to invoke the political will needed to make sure that examples of good practice become standard practice nationwide.

In a post-Brexit environment and with a new Justice Secretary now in post, this event provided the enthusiasm, inspiration and evidence needed to help promote this message.

Thanks goes to Policy Bristol, the Centre for Poverty and Social Justice, and the Faculty Families and Parenting Group for their support.

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Why inequality matters

Inequality discussion_watershedTessa Coombes, PhD student in the School for Policy Studies, former councillor, ex-policy director at Business West, and part-time blogger discusses why inequality matters, following the screening of a new documentary at the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

“The people will always forget” was a significant line in the documentary The Divide which I saw this weekend as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. In the film the line refers to the belief repeated by those to blame for the sub prime mortgage crash in the US, the bankers and financiers, who led us into the Global Financial Crisis and then expected us to bail them out. It’s an assumption that one could well believe our politicians make on a regular basis when taking some of the decisions they do – it’s ok they’ll forget about it when it comes to voting! It’s also an assumption that means we fail to learn from the mistakes of the past and that potentially stops us from addressing many of today’s issues and concerns. Which brings me to the subject of this discussion – the increasing levels of inequality in the UK and the growing divide between top and bottom.

The Divide catalogues the stories of different individuals in the UK and US just trying to get on in life. It highlights all too easily the increasing divide between those that ‘have’ and those that don’t. It illustrates the growing extent to which many of us are perhaps mistakenly driven by money and consumerism, by keeping up with our peers or striving to do better than them, and aspiring for things that are, in the end, unlikely to make us any happier. The main message of the film is based on the book “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, first published in 2009, but becoming ever more pertinent as time goes on. One of the most important points that the book makes is that inequality affects all of us. The problems are not just confined to the poor, the effects are seen across all aspects of society. Income inequality is a social pollutant because it spreads and everyone is worse off in a more unequal society.

The film illustrated many relevant issues that we are beginning to see the impact of in the UK, but in this post I’m just going to pick up on a couple of them that I think are becoming ever more relevant, that is, the impact of zero hours contracts and the growth of gated communities.

The use of zero hours contracts has become more prevalent in the UK in recent years across a range of sectors. Whilst some in government have tried to argue that it suits both workers and employers, the human impact of these contracts is illustrated particularly well by the film. If you don’t know how many hours you will be working in any particular week how can you budget for rent, food, bills etc? Imagine the levels of stress this type of contract could impose on you from day to day. You don’t know when you will be needed or for how long, so you don’t know what time you need to go in to work, if at all. You don’t know what you will earn in a week, so how can you plan ahead? The insecurity and uncertainly this creates is huge. Imagine having to live with that, even as a single person, but what if you have children and have to plan for their lives too, how does that work? In New Zealand this form of contract has been banned altogether (by a centre-right government), perhaps we could learn something from them?

The concept of gated communities has been around for some time now, with many more at a massive scale in the US, but something that is also creeping into the UK. In the US it’s a way of creating a sanitised community, where white people can feel safe surrounded by other white people, protected by armed guards at the entrance to their ‘community’. The community in the film had its own golf course, lake, play areas and parks and was characterised by large individual houses in their own plot of land. It’s a community that to many would look and feel like ‘prison’ but which in the US is something to aspire to. In the film these places came across as very exclusive, a place to live where people felt safe, but also where people felt isolated. There was in fact little sense of community in evidence, with estate agents promoting the place as lovely and quiet and where you won’t see your neighbours. That’s not a community! In the UK these types of gated community are happening, not on the scale of the US, but they’re there to make people feel safe, so people can surround themselves with other people who have money and status. To me it would feel like a prison, where you have to sign in visitors and go through guard gates just to get home, and where the diversity that makes our communities so rich and fascinating is totally missing. Let’s hope we choose to learn less from the US and focus more on the innovative and creative approach of our European and Scandinavian neighbours.

This point on who we learn from is an interesting one, which was picked up during the discussion with Kate Pickett after the film. It seems the devolved administrations of the UK are more likely to look to Scandinavia, The Netherlands and Germany for inspiration, when it comes to tackling inequality, than the UK Parliament as a whole, where sadly, all to often we look to the US for ideas.

That is the US where health and social inequalities are worse than anywhere else and where income inequalities are at their most extreme. There are many lessons to learn from elsewhere but let’s please make sure we are looking in the right direction. For example, in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, they are looking at paying citizens a basic income and in Bhutan a Gross National Happiness Framework was introduced to replace measures based on GDP.

Inequality destroys empathy” that’s why whilst inequality does of course matter, it doesn’t matter how you achieve greater equality. There are a range of many different measures and policies from across the political spectrum that can work. The key is to do something about top and bottom levels of pay to create greater income equality because as Kate Pickett put it “every action we take individually matters and can make a difference”.

 

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Why how we measure poverty matters

Tessa Coombes: @policytessa

Tessa Coombes, PhD student in the School for Policy Studies, former councillor, ex-policy director at Business West, and part-time blogger considers the latest debates in poverty measurement as illustrated in an event organised by the Centre for Poverty and Social Justice

There’s an interesting debate that’s been going on for some time now about measuring poverty and getting the issue onto the agenda so people sit up and take notice in the right way. It’s an area of academia that I haven’t really engaged in before, but one where I have a personal interest in seeking to see the debate move in the right kind of direction. A direction that takes us away from the concept of demonising the poor and those living in poverty and instead acknowledges the levels of inequality and seeks to do something about it in a way that benefits those most in need. The recent Policy & Politics conference in Bristol had inequality and poverty as one of its main themes and at the time I wrote a couple of blogs on the plenary sessions – the human cost of inequality (Kate Pickett) and why social inequality persists (Danny Dorling). Both these presentations provided plenty of evidence to illustrate just how significant a problem we have in the UK and how it is getting worse.

Last week I went to a seminar on this very issue run by the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice at the University of Bristol, where the subject of debate was about how to gain traction and create change from academic research and evidence. The focus of the discussion was about using living standards rather than poverty indicators and the difference this can make when trying to attract the attention of politicians and policy makers. It was an interesting and thought provoking debate which gave some pointers on how we can translate measures and indicators into policy and action, as well as why it’s helpful to look at living standards for everyone rather than just looking at those in poverty.

The first speaker, Bryan Perry from the Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand, talked about how by using evidence in the ‘right’ way, that was responsive to the needs of politicians, using the Material Wellbeing Index, they had managed to gain traction and make an impact on policy. The key was talking about trends rather than absolute numbers, providing simple statistics that tell the ‘right’ story and making the most of the opportunities as they arise. The focus of their work on living standards has served to highlight the differences, to show how life at the bottom is radically different, and to emphasise the point, in simple terms, about what people don’t have rather than about what they need. This has resulted in a centre-right government actually implementing increases in benefit payments as part of their policy, rather than seeking to reduce them at every opportunity.

The discussion then turned to the UK with a presentation from Demi Patsios, on the development of a UK Living Standards Index (UKLSI), where the point was made that in order to understand the poor we need to understand the rich, therefore just looking at those in poverty is only a small part of the story we need to capture. The ability to understand poverty in the general context of society provides that broader picture and story, which serves to highlight the extent and levels of inequality, rather than just the hardships at one end of the spectrum and enables us to develop policies that are directed at the full spectrum of society. The UKLSI aims to measure what matters most to people under three main themes: what we have, what we do and where we live. Whilst it is much more complicated that this and brings together both objective and subjective data into 10 domains and 275 different measures, the overall concept and themes are simple to understand and highlight some important differences and issues. The Index helps us to understand ‘what we have’ by looking at essential v desirables and luxuries v wants. It looks at ‘what we do’ through political, social and community engagement and ‘where we live’ by satisfaction with our accommodation and neighbourhood. It brings together the types of measures that appear in things like the Living Wage calculations and local authority Quality of Life indicators, and it does it in a comprehensive and compelling fashion.

But what does all this add to the debate and will our politicians take any notice? How do we make this type of discussion gain traction in the UK, in the face of current media and government interest in individualising the problem and stigmatising the poor, whilst ensuring the poverty discourse is firmly focused away from the rich and powerful?

The current government’s approach, as outlined by Dave Gordon in his presentation, is to repeal the only legislation we had with real targets to reduce poverty (the Child Poverty Act) and to replace this with measures on educational attainment and workless households. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this approach can work with the recent commitment under the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” and to “reduce inequality within and among countries”.

From my own experience, as an ex-politician and someone who has worked with politicians and policy makers over many years, the key for me is making the messages simple. Yes, providing the evidence to support the simple statements, but only after you’ve sold them the message to begin with. Overcomplicating things with lots of measures and targets just serves to mask the message and hide the key points. Something that combines simple messages with supporting evidence; that illustrates disparities in living standards; and provides for micro level analysis would seem to be the right kind of approach.

This blog was first posted on Tessa’s own blog

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Deprivation of necessities has become more widespread in Britain since 1999

134179Deprivation of necessities has become more widespread in Britain since 1999

The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures have seen the most sustained decline in household incomes since the 1930s. In this post, Eldin Fahmy examines their impacts on public perceptions of minimally adequate living standards, and on the extent of deprivation. Based upon analysis of survey data for 1999 and 2012, it seems that as households have been forced to ‘tighten their belts’, perceptions of minimum living standards have become less generous. At the same time the extent of deprivation has increased dramatically.

The 2012 UK Poverty and Social Exclusion survey (2012-PSE) is the latest and most comprehensive in a series of household surveys conducted since the early 1980s adopting a ‘consensual’ approach to poverty which reflect public views on minimally adequate living standards. Since our last survey in Britain in 1999, public perceptions of what constitute the ‘necessities of life’ have become less generous.  Nevertheless, the proportion of adults in Britain deprived of these necessities has increased substantially since 1999.

Poverty in Britain today is widely understood in relative terms as an inability to take part in lifestyles and activities which are customary or widely approved in contemporary society due to insufficient resources.  This requires direct observation of living standards and cannot be established simply be using arbitrary income thresholds. Since Mack and Lansley’s ground-breaking 1983 survey, surveys on poverty in 1990, 1999 and 2012 have therefore examined public views on minimally acceptable living standards and have incorporated these views within the definition and measurement of poverty itself.

One consistent finding emerging from these surveys has been the striking degree of public consensus across social groups (e.g. by gender, age, social class, income level, etc.) concerning the relative importance of different items and activities.  Nevertheless, as deprivation is here understood to be relative to prevailing societal standards we should expect that perceptions of necessities will vary across time to reflect changing living standards, tastes and customs. What, then, do the British public view as necessities of life today and in what ways has this changed since our last survey in 1999?

Table 1 (below) shows the percentage of adults in 2012 and 1999 describing a comparable set of items and activities as ‘necessities’. In both 1999 and 2012 there is widespread agreement on many items, and perceptions of necessities extend far beyond what might be described as ‘basic’ needs to encompass a range of ‘social’ necessities.  As predicted by relative deprivation theory, perceptions of necessities also reflect changes in prevailing living standards and consumption norms, for example, in relation to technological items which have become more widely available (and widely encouraged) over the 1999-2012 period.

Table 1: Percentage of people viewing items as necessities for adults in 1999 and 2012 in Britain

 

table-1

However, one implication of a relative approach is that during periods of declining living standards public perceptions of necessities may also become less generous.  Given the sustained decline in household incomes and living standards arising from the 2008 financial crisis, it would be astonishing if this was not also reflected in public attitudes to the necessities of life.  Table 1 suggests that this is indeed the case.

Many items record a substantial fall in the proportion of respondents who view them as necessities in 2012 compared with 1999, with those items where public support was more equivocal in 1999 witnessing an especially dramatic decline in approval. As household incomes have become more constrained, more basic necessities (towards the top of Table 1) are increasingly prioritised over more discretionary items.  As we argue in our preliminary report, it seems that the public have scaled back their expectations regarding minimum living standards in ways which reflect the prevailing climate of austerity and pessimism.  One consequence of recession and austerity program may be that the British public have ‘tightened their belts’ and now consider many things which in the past were viewed as essential to no longer be necessities.

However, even though public perceptions of minimum living standards became less generous, the extent of deprivation of necessities has nevertheless increased for adults in Britain over this period.  Table 2 (below) shows the percentage of adults in Britain who lack different necessities in 1999 and 2012 because they cannot afford them.  The proportion of adults unable to afford items and activities considered by the British public to be ‘necessities of life’ in 2012 has increased dramatically compared with 1999.  For example, the percentage of adults unable to adequately heat their home has increased seven-fold, and the percentage unable to afford a damp-free home, or to replace broken electrical goods, or to afford appropriate clothes for job interviews has at least doubled over this period.

Table 2: Percentage of adults lacking items because they cannot afford them in 1999 and 2012 in Britain

 table 2 Eldins blog

There is now widespread agreement on what constitutes a minimally acceptable diet for adults, including two meals a day, fresh fruit and vegetables daily, and meat and fish every other day.  However, an increasing number of adults are unable to afford to eat properly, with the percentage of British adults who are unable to afford at least one of these dietary essentials increasing from 5% in 1999 to 8% in 2012.  Since Table 2 focuses on the same items measured in comparable ways in 1999 and 2012, there has been an absolute increase in social and material deprivation over this period amongst the British adult population.

Underpinning the growth in deprivation over this period has been a rising tide of income inequality over the 1999-2008 period which ensured that despite a period of sustained economic growth until 2008, the benefits of growth were for the most part not enjoyed by poorer households whose incomes and wages fell further and further behind those of the better-off in relative terms.

Following the 2008 recession there has been a modest decline in income inequality and relative income poverty, but this reflects an overall decline in societal standards rather than any absolute improvement in the circumstances of poorer households.  Although this decline in living standards is also reflected in more restrictive public perceptions of necessities, the extent of social and material deprivation amongst adults in Britain has clearly increased substantially since 1999.  Indeed, these findings reflect the situation in 2012 before the majority of proposed changes to welfare benefits came into effect.  Since these measures are set to hit the poor hard, our findings almost certainly underestimate the true extent of social and material deprivation in Britain today.

Note: A longer version of this article was published in the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice (Vol 22, Issue 2) in October 2014.

This post was first published on the British Politics and Policy blog

About the Author

Dr Eldin Fahmyis Senior Lecturer in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. He is a member of the ESRC-funded 2012 UK Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey research team (Ref: RES-060–25–688 0052).

 

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Election Brief: Living standards in the UK have fallen

Professor David Gordon discusses coalition arguments relating to living standards, a key aspect of tomorrow’s general election 

A copy of the full Election Brief is available at: <http://www.poverty.ac.uk/editorial/uk-living-standards-pse-election-briefing>

The change in UK living standards is one of the key contested issues in the May 2015 General Election.  The Coalition Government argues that living standards have increased since it came to power in 2010.  The Labour Party and other opposition parties claim that living standards have fallen.

In March 2015, the Chancellor George Osborne presented evidence in his final Budget that living standards have increased.  This evidence is misleading.  Research from a range of reputable academic studies has shown that average income has fallen over the past five years and poverty has increased.

The latest available data clearly show that the living standards of the UK population have fallen, particularly since the April 2013 cuts in Social Security and other austerity measures took effect.  More people in the UK are now in financial difficulties and increasing numbers are unable to afford both the necessities of life (such as two pairs of shoes) and minor luxuries, such as a one week holiday away from home.  Both fuel poverty and utility bill arrears have increased.  These are the stark conclusions from a comparison of the change in UK living standards between 2009 and 2013, based on early release data recently provided by the UK Government to the European Statistical Office (EUROSTAT).

In 2009, 45 per cent of people lived in households which did not have sufficient money to pay an unexpected expense; by 2013 this had increased to almost half (49 per cent) of the UK population (see Table 1).  The figures also show that, for every single indicator of financial difficulty, more people were having problems in 2013 than in 2009.  It is clear that both serious and more minor financial difficulties are increasing amongst the UK population, with over a third of people in 2013 having difficulties in making ends meet and over one in five people finding their housing costs a heavy burden.

Table 1: Financial Difficulties in the UK in 2009 and 2013

2009% 2013%
Cannot pay unexpected expenses 45 49
Difficult to make ends meet 31 35
Housing cost are a heavy burden 17 22
Cannot afford a small amount of money to spend on yourself each week 14 21
In arrears on rent/mortgage, utility bills or HP during the last 12 months 9 13

The data also compares how the richest two-thirds of the UK populations’ standard of living changed between 2009 and 2013 (see Table 2).  The percentage of people who could make ends meet without any difficulties fell from 69 per cent of the UK population to under two thirds (65 per cent).  Only the very richest (those who could make ends meet very easily) saw no perceived fall in their living standards.

Table 2: No difficulties Making Ends Meet in the UK in 2009 and 2013

Ability to make ends meet? 2009% 2013%
Fairly easily 39 36
Easily 19 18
Very easily 11 11
Total – no difficulties 69 65

The Chancellor’s claim that living standards have risen is fallacious as the National Accounts household sector data that he used are primarily a measure of the movement of money not the living standards of households.  Real Household Disposable Income (RHDI) measures the total income of households compared with the rest of the economy.  There is no information about how the total expenditure or income is distributed at the individual or household level.  Thus, if only the richest 1% have a rise in their incomes, this will also increase the average income in the household sector by exactly the same amount as if the increase had been shared equally by everybody.  RHDI cannot provide a good or adequate measure of living standards.  By shifting attention to the Real Household Disposable Income (RHDI) GDP measure, the Coalition Government has obscured the real impact on peoples’ lives of fallen living standards.

There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from the available scientific evidence – the majority of the UK population has suffered from a fall in their living standards during the current government’s term of office. Both the poor and the majority have indeed ‘all been in it together’ – only the richest appear to have escaped.

It is a shame that the Coalition Government was not prepared to release the latest statistical information on living standards to the public before the May 2015 election – fortunately, it has recently become available via the European Union.

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Poverty in paradise

Shailen NandyResearch Fellow in the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice at  the School for Policy Studies discusses poverty in the PacifShailenic Islands

I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes” (Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener)

What images come to mind when you think of the islands of the Pacific? Sun-kissed beaches, turquoise seas, balmy climes? Amazing rugby players? How about poverty? No? Well, you might be surprised.  Poverty, however it is measured, is a very real problem among the Pacific Islands, Countries and Territories (PICTS).  It has also been frequently overlooked.  Data from Oxfam New Zealand spells out in grim detail just how bad things are.  Around one third of the region’s population, about 2.7 million people, lack sufficient income to meet their basic human needs. Rates of child and maternal mortality are high, and large proportions of the region’s children either never enter school or do not complete primary education.  Adult literacy is low, at only 65% in the Solomon Islands.  Basic service and housing provision is poor, with 15% of the population of Papua New Guinea (around 120,000 people) living in informal urban squatter settlements.  These overcrowded households lack access to improved sources of water and forms of sanitation, and are subjected to the spread and effects of debilitating and deadly diseases, which drive child malnutrition and mortality.  These, and other, conditions contribute to a climate with high levels of gender violence, with over half of women in Samoa and the Solomon Islands reporting experiencing physical and/or sexual violence.  Paradise for many maybe, but certainly not for all.

The United Nations identifies 57 countries as Small Island Developing States (SIDS).  Located around the world, they share similar development challenges, including having small populations, limited resources, vulnerability to natural disasters and climate change, and being geographically remote.

The lack of attention and research on poverty in SIDS, like the PICTS, has impeded some governments from developing the strong and effective anti-poverty policies that are needed.  Conventional monetary poverty assessments cannot give a true picture of the extent of the problem, especially in countries where people may use bartering or reciprocal exchange instead of cash purchasing, and where families live together in extended households, pooling and sharing material and social resources.  In addition, in some PICTS, many households receive remittances in cash and as durable goods from relatives living and working abroad and these can be very difficult to measure accurately.  In such instances, assessing poverty needs a more sophisticated approach, with less reliance placed on traditional measures like an individual’s or household’s income.

Bristol’s Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research has an international reputation for poverty research, analysis and anti-poverty policy development.  Members of the Centre have advised governments, the United Nations and many international organisations around the world on how best to identify, assess and ameliorate poverty.  Recently its work, through the ERSC-funded Poverty and Social Exclusion in the United Kingdom project, informed the public, national media, and policy makers about the true extent of poverty in the UK at the height of the recession.  What made the project so important were its use of methods and techniques which are recognised as being State of the Art for poverty research.  The project used the Consensual Approach, which has been developed over 30 years.  It takes into consideration the opinions of the general public about what items and activities they consider to be necessary for an acceptable standard of living, from which no one should be excluded due to a lack of resources.  Importantly the approach introduces a democratic element into the definition and measurement of poverty enabling populations, rather than just academics or politicians, to determine what constitutes poverty and thus how it should be tackled.  The approach is increasingly being used in a growing number of countries, including many in the European Union, South Africa, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and even low income African countries, like Benin.  Bristol researchers have been involved with most of these studies, and there are now plans to expand use of the method more widely, across the twenty-two Pacific Islands Countries and Territories (PICTS).

In November 2014, Bristol PhD student Viliami Konifelenisi Fifita demonstrated to representatives of regional statistical offices the potential of the Consensual Approach for assessing poverty in the PICTs.  This trip was funded by a travel grant from the Alumni Foundation and the School for Policy Studies.  He showed how, as part of his PhD looking at poverty in Tonga, the method was well suited for use in a Pacific Islands context.  As Government Statistician for the Kingdom of Tonga, Viliami developed a survey module for Tonga’s national Demographic and Health Survey, which he is using to make the first scientific assessments of poverty in Tonga.  His presentation so impressed delegates, that by the end of the meeting a draft module had been drawn up and was being considered for inclusion in other national surveys.  At least four PICTS will run surveys containing the module in 2015, with other countries set to follow in 2016 and 2017.  The data generated will change, and improve, the measurement of poverty in the region, providing researchers and policy makers with new data with which to develop better anti-poverty policies.

Viliami’s efforts to enthuse his colleagues to adopt and apply the Consensual Approach, has begun a process of collaboration between Bristol academics and PICTs statisticians and governments.  One aspect of the SIDS – their small size and close-knit communities – holds considerable potential for policy development and implementation, in that policy changes can be made relatively swiftly, with benefits and improvements to people’s lives following quickly.  Of particular interest in the region is the fact that the Consensual Approach captures important non-monetary aspects of poverty, which until recently have not formed part of regional poverty assessments.  In March 2015 Viliami travelled to the Solomon Islands, to begin training survey enumerators in the method.  Funding for this important work was provided at very short notice by an ESRC Impact Travel Award, the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice, and the School for Policy Studies.  The use and application of methods and techniques developed at Bristol, and provision of training and assistance to PICTS statistical offices and governments by Bristol researchers will, in the years to come, make a meaningful impact to the lives of people living across the entire Pacific region.

 

 

 

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