Justifying ‘Never-Working Families’?

In a recent post, Lindsey Macmillan showed that “The ‘never working’ family may be an easier sound bite but it is not representative of the true situation”Here she responds to yet another attempt to make these claims – except this time, the Government have been forced to justify their claims in a Freedom of Information request and response to another MP.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, has repeatedly made references to families where generations never work. When asked to justify these claims (to Paul Goggins MP), he concedes this is based on personal observations, not evidence.  His justification for this is that statistical information on the number of UK families that never work is not available.

recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request makes the same argument – but then goes on to cite my own research;

“a research report was produced by the University of Bristol in 2011
looking at this issue. This reports that there are pockets in Britain where there are two and three generations of families who are unemployed.”

In fact, there is clear evidence that shows how rare a phenomenon the never-working family is.

In my paper in Dec 2011, I looked at the number of households where two generations had never worked. Evidence from the Labour Force Survey, which is used by DWP in their labour market statistics analysis, showed that in Spring 2010, only 0.3% of multi-generational households were in a position where both generations had never worked. That’s just 15,000 households in the country. Of these, in 5,000 households the younger generation had only just left full time education, within the last year, and so had barely had a chance to work yet.

This story holds in data where the families don’t live together in the same house (as seen in the National Child Development Study, the British Cohort Study and the British Household Panel Survey). There is very little evidence of even two-generation-never-working families, driven by the fact that so few of the younger generation are never in work (less than 2% by age 23 and less than 1% by age 29 – see here). Instances of three-generation-never-working families would be even rarer.

A recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation Study took the more direct qualitative approach and sent researchers out into deprived neighbourhoods in Glasgow and Middlesbrough to look for families where three generations had never had a job. They couldn’t find a single one.

Iain Duncan Smith isn’t the only senior politician to make these claims – Tony Blair said in 1997 that “Behind the statistics lie  households where three generations have never had a job” (see p16 of this). But my work and others’ shows the evidence doesn’t match the rhetoric.

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8 Responses to Justifying ‘Never-Working Families’?

  1. Lindsay,

    A slightly wonky question: how much bigger would the population be if you looked at “seldom working families”? Like families with some, but very little, contact with the labor market? (not sure exactly how to define that).


  2. An idea that two or more generations relied on benefits all their lives is preposterous enough to elicit a response from the public. Just like “I have 23 kids and want more.” Or “he claimed benefits for bad back and depression yet went dancing in Ibiza”. They take exceptional cases and then whip up enough of a media storm to garner enough support so that any benefit changes are passed with a healthy majority.

    I believe that whenever someone is making data up or using them for their own means (like IDS with the fall in the number of people affected by the benefit cap) then they should be made to set the record straight and apologise.

  3. While generations of never-working families may be rare, when observed, they leave an indelible impression. Thankfully, they are not as numerous as people often think, but that they exist at all is still problematic because, at least in the US, they are usually heavily involved in criminality.

  4. Keith says:

    Politicians like telling lies presumably to justify tax cuts for their wealthy paymasters.

  5. Pingback: Public Opinion Squared | Inequalities

  6. Pingback: Does truth matter? | Inequalities

  7. Pingback: Killer evidence for intergenerational welfare dependency? | Inequalities

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