The changing face of local poverty

16 Mar 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 25 Mar 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

The whys and wherefores of being poor in Northern Ireland are changing and could become more difficult to address, according to a new Joseph Rowntree Foundation report.

The overall rate of poverty in Northern Ireland is little different from ten years ago but the problem has become more stubborn.

Today the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published a report, prepared by the New Policy Institute, which outlined the changing nature of local poverty.

Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion in Northern Ireland 2016 was launched at the Girdwood Community Hub where some of those involved outlined key findings. The event was part of the Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics, and Scope will be taking a look at a number of themes discussed at its events over the next couple of weeks.

The report is not that long and very much worth reading in full. Some of the key findings include:

• The composition of those in poverty in Northern Ireland has changed over the last five years. There are more working-age adults, particularly young people, more private renters and fewer pensioners in poverty.

• Northern Ireland has not experienced the same strong employment performance as Great Britain, only now reaching pre-recession levels. Since 2011, the working-age employment rate has increased by 0.6 percentage points, compared with a 3.0 percentage point increase in GB.

• The overall employment rate in NI is five percentage points lower than in GB. For some groups, the gap is much wider – 15 percentage points lower for disabled people in NI compared with GB, 12 each for lone parents and 16-24 year olds.

The number of pensioners and children in poverty in 2013/14 was lower than in 2008/9 – however this was offset by a rise in poverty among working-age adults. This rise, as the key findings suggest, was driven by the 16-29 age bracket, those in the private rental sector, and those in working families (meaning at least on person in the immediate family unit is in work). Of course, there will be crossover between those three groups.

Behind the findings

Adam Tinson, from the New Policy Institute which carried out the research for JRF, spoke at the launch, saying the findings challenge perceptions about poverty and that the “standard image is not necessarily correct.”

“This report is the fifth of its kind, the first one was ten years ago and you will see perhaps that not much has changed in some ways in Northern Ireland, in terms of the overall poverty figures.”

He said the shape of local poverty has changed and noted that one major positive, that meant the picture is not as bad as it could be, is our relatively low housing costs.

“Before you take away housing costs Northern Ireland has the highest poverty rate in any region in the UK and also when compared with the Republic of Ireland. Once you account for those it’s leapfrogged by several other regions.”

NI’s lack of childcare provision, particularly when compared with GB, and also Welfare Reform were also cited as significant wider factors in the local picture.

“Even though it [Welfare Reform mitigation] is pretty good, or very good by the standards of the rest of the UK, there’s still quite a few questions about the best way to monitor the effects of Welfare Reform as they go on.”

He said the next anti-poverty strategy should pay particular heed to in-work poverty, people in the private-rental sector and also young people, noting however that these kinds of problems can be harder to address.

“In the private rental sector people tend to put less roots down which does make it harder to help people in poverty.

“We think of getting into work as a good route out of poverty but if you are already in work that’s more challenging, with possible solutions things like in-work benefits [such as tax credits] and also what employers do, how they design and structure jobs, have job opportunities and job progression.

“The NI Assembly has to move past the traditional approaches to poverty and try to have a wider range of options.”

What can be done

Helen Barnard, Head of Analysis at JRF, said she believed the UK needs a better welfare strategy in order to tackle these shifting problems.

“Most [benefits] services are about getting people into work and off benefits, and then forgetting about them until they show up again six months later.

She that schemes with continual support get better outcomes. “Where you carry on working them the person, carry on supporting them, and ask questions – what skills and qualifications are they developing, is their childcare continuing? – those are the programmes that work.”

The boiled-down message is that we are now looking at a poverty that is more difficult to isolate or unpick and, therefore, could be more stubborn to address.

At the same time, our understanding of the nature of poverty, and what can be done about it, is increasing. This will help find more subtle solutions. Strategem’s Quintin Oliver, who hosted the event, said:

“There are questions about the morality of poverty in western society but perhaps more important are questions about the economics of poverty in western society if you want to grow and spread wealth.

“That’s one of the big shifts I’ve noticed in the poverty debate in my three or four decades involvement. At the start it was all about the demand that the state provides money to people in poverty. Then we went through the state of adding social exclusion – so it wasn’t just about money, it was people’s access to society.

“Now we are talking about poverty and the labour market. I think that’s a natural development, and I think it’s one we’ve ignored in the poverty discussion for too long.”

Findings from the next report into local poverty will be interesting to see.

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