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Just Managing?

 | 
Mark O'Brien
, 
Paul Kyprianou

Part I: Back to the future?

2. The Getting By? Study

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1The life experiences reported here were given to community researchers as part of the 2014–2015 Getting By? study that was supported by the Liverpool City Council Action Group on Poverty. The stories of the families who took part in the project, however, will have been representative of those of many others across the UK. Indeed, it is the wider significance of these families’ stories beyond their local setting that makes them important. That said, some local context will deepen our appreciation of the impact of government policy upon thousands of Liverpool working families in recent years.

2Since the 1980s a ‘structural gap’ has existed between Liverpool and the rest of the UK on several socio-economic measures, with the City falling below national averages for employment rates and health indicators. However, throughout the early 2000s there was evidence of improvement in the lives of Liverpool residents.1 Driven in part by an expanding public sector element in the economic composition of the Liverpool City Region, economic growth continued over the ten years between 1999 and 2009.2 This meant that 50,000 jobs were created over that period. There was an improvement in educational attainment rates which began to compare well to national averages at National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) Level 2 and NVQ Level 3. Partly attributable to the public health and education initiatives of the City’s Primary Care Trust, population health measures had also seen improvements over this period. Improvements in the statistics for cardio-vascular disease were evident for example. Obesity measures had also improved, especially amongst children at Year 6. However, by the early years of the 2010–2015 Coalition Government these economic, social and health improvements were beginning to falter.3

3As a city region for which the public sector in the form of government services and administration comprised around 40 percent of economic composition, Liverpool was especially vulnerable to swingeing cuts to departmental and non-departmental public body budget settlements. Furthermore, many private sector companies in sub-sectors such as business services, retail, sports and leisure, relied in part at least upon public-sector spending within Liverpool and across its economic area. These sub-sectors were now jeopardised by the scale of the reductions in government spending initiated by the 2010 budget. The scrapping of the Liverpool Primary Care Trust in March 2013 also meant the loss of the overarching public health strategy it had provided.

4Liverpool already had a high proportion of English ‘most deprived small areas’, a relatively high proportion of benefits claimants, a high incidence of children living in homes affected by poverty and a high frequency of Incapacity Benefit claimants. This meant that many thousands of Liverpool residents were especially vulnerable to the effects of benefit cuts, the raising of entitlement thresholds and the new benefit caps introduced by the Welfare Reform Act that became law in March 2012. On top of this, major cuts to various types of area support from Central Government, cuts to Local Authority services, the loss of Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants resulting from the abolition of the Discretionary Social Fund and the decimation of funding to Community and Voluntary Sector organisations for free services and neighbourhood-level projects were to add significantly to the problems being faced by Liverpool’s working-class communities. This onslaught resulted in a planned four-year £90 million of cuts annually to services across the board. Altogether, the Central Government budget allocation to the City had fallen by £420 million since 2010.

  • 4 Jaleel, G. (2014), ‘Liverpool is the Hardest Hit Major UK City in Government’ s Latest Round of Fu (...)
  • 5 Liverpool City Council (2017), Welfare Reform Cumulative Impact Analysis 2016. Interim Report Febr (...)

5So, on top of Liverpool’s unenviable position as one of the most deprived cities in England came reductions in Central Government funding of 58 percent in real terms.4 By 2021 projected budgets show a reduction of 68 percent. Moreover, the services that have been affected are those that low-income families disproportionately rely upon. This pattern, of areas of high deprivation being hit by the largest cuts, has been evident in many parts of the UK. Specifically, Liverpool has suffered the fifth largest financial reduction in the UK with losses projected to 2020–2021 rising to £157 million each year.5

6Whilst each of the specific losses were consequential for communities, families and individuals it was the interacting effects of these multiple changes, combined with reductions and removals of services and benefits, that was to create a dangerous downward spiral for those who were already struggling to make ends meet. This was the background against which the interviews for the project were conducted.

  • 6 Citizens’Advice is a government funded service providing free and impartial information and advice (...)
  • 7 For information about Praxic CIC: http://praxiscic.co.uk/

7A major impetus for the research came from the Hope Conference organised by the office of the Mayor of Liverpool in the summer of 2013. The conference brought together agencies and organisations working on the ‘front line’ of helping those in need, including the Citizens’Advice Bureau (CAB),6 credit unions and foodbanks. The intention was to identify priorities and actions to help address the serious challenges Liverpool faced because of the combination of the economic downturn, changes to welfare and the loss of funding for crucial services. Among the messages coming out of the conference was the need to highlight the impact of working poverty, and to get ‘beyond the statistics’ to tell the stories of the families affected by it. The Action Group on Poverty responded to this by supporting the proposal to replicate the Round About a Pound a Week study. This was initiated and delivered by a Liverpool-based research company, ‘Praxis CIC’.7

  • 8 McKenzie, L. (2015), Getting By: Estates Class and Culture in Austerity Britain. Policy Press.
  • 9 Daly, M. and Kelly, G. (2015), Families and Poverty: Every Day Life on a Low-income. Policy Press.
  • 10 Nettle, D. (2015), Tyneside Neighbourhoods: Deprivation, Social Life and Social behaviour in One B (...)
  • 11 Patrick, R. (2017), Whose Benefit? Everyday Realities of Welfare Reform. Policy Press.

8This book joins other studies that have focused upon geographical localities to provide an insight into how life is changing for the poorest communities across the UK. In her coincidentally titled Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, Lisa McKenzie (2015)8 drew upon her close relationship with the St Ann’s estate in Nottingham to share an insider’s view of the hardships being created by austerity. In Families and Poverty: Every Day Life on a Low Income, Mary Daly and Grace Kelly (2015)9 drew upon research they had conducted with families in Belfast, to explore the impact of poverty upon aspects of family life. In Tyneside Neighbourhoods: Deprivation, Social Life and Social Behaviour in One British City Daniel Nettle (2015),10 using a combination of demographic and ethnographic data in a comparative study explored the negative impacts of socio-economic deprivation upon levels of neighbourhood trust and pro-sociality. In Whose Benefit? Everyday Realities of Welfare Reform, Ruth Patrick (2017)11 explored the impact of benefit reform on the lives of working class people in Leeds. The family testimonies reported here then, are not only relevant to North West of England. Rather they are a local expression of a far more widespread social reality.

  • 12 Praxis CiC (2015), http://gettingby.org.uk/
  • 13 The rate deemed by the public in 2014 to be the minimum necessary to achieve an acceptable standar (...)

9The Getting By? (2015) study12 captured the experience over a year of thirty Liverpool families in which one or both parents were in low paid employment. Using weekly spending diaries to track their income and spending and in regular in-depth interviews, they revealed the challenges faced in their daily lives as they struggled to cope in their day-to-day lives. Just about managing on incomes below the Minimum Income Standard13 they are experiencing ‘austerity Britain’ at the sharp end.

10The families had not been selected because their situation was extreme: in fact, rather the opposite. These people were in the ‘mainstream’ of the employment market and of society. They were working in schools, hospitals, hotels, shops and offices. Some were on the national minimum pay level, and others just above it. A few were in better paid employment; but nonetheless, because of specific circumstances, were struggling financially. In some households both parents were in paid employment. For many of the families, part-time employment was all that was available; or was the only option given child-care responsibilities. To reflect the fact that many adults are in some form of training and employment a student nurse in her last year of training, who was also having to do agency work, was included. In addition, three families where a parent was ‘self-employed’ were included, reflecting the increasing trend towards this type of work practice.

  • 14 Shildrick, T., MacDonald, R., Webster, C. and Garthwaite, K. (2011), Poverty and Insecurity. Life (...)

11The families then conformed to the type of the ‘near poor’ who live just above the official poverty line and who, whilst remaining in employment, move in and out of technical definitions of poverty and live close to the edge of intractable financial and social problems.14 They are the ‘just-about-managing’ households of austerity Britain. They were drawn from different neighbourhoods in Liverpool. Most were white British; one was from the Liverpool Chinese community; one was a Liverpool-born Black British family; one family was Somali; and one family was from Poland. All the families had at least one child under eighteen years of age. Nearly half were single parent families (although this did not tell the whole story as some had partners they did not live with for financial reasons). Several of the families were living in privately rented property; others were in social housing; and two owned their own home and were paying mortgages.

Notes

1 The Mersey Partnership (2012), Economic Review 2012, p. 44, http://www.knowsley.gov.uk/pdf/LC10_MerseyPartnershipEconomicReview2012.pdf

2 Liverpool City Council (2012), The Liverpool Economic Briefing, p. 5, http://liverpool.gov.uk/media/9996/liverpool-economic-briefing-february-2012.pdf

3 O’Brien, M. (2012), ‘Fairness and the City’. Public-sector Cuts, Welfare Reform and Risks to the Population of Liverpool and its Wider Region: An Independent Submission to the Liverpool Fairness Commission. Centre for Lifelong Learning, https://www.liv.ac.uk/media/livacuk/cll/reports/fairness_and_the_city.pdf, pp. 27-39.

4 Jaleel, G. (2014), ‘Liverpool is the Hardest Hit Major UK City in Government’ s Latest Round of Funding Cuts’, Liverpool Echo, 19 January, http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/liverpool-one-worst-hit-country-8313557

5 Liverpool City Council (2017), Welfare Reform Cumulative Impact Analysis 2016. Interim Report February 2017, p. 4, https://www.lcvs.org.uk/events/report-launch-liverpool-welfare-reform-cumulative-impact-assessment/

6 Citizens’Advice is a government funded service providing free and impartial information and advice about benefits, entitlements at work, debt management, health issues, immigration matters, family law, etc.

7 For information about Praxic CIC: http://praxiscic.co.uk/

8 McKenzie, L. (2015), Getting By: Estates Class and Culture in Austerity Britain. Policy Press.

9 Daly, M. and Kelly, G. (2015), Families and Poverty: Every Day Life on a Low-income. Policy Press.

10 Nettle, D. (2015), Tyneside Neighbourhoods: Deprivation, Social Life and Social behaviour in One British City. Open Book Publishers, http://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/398; https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0084

11 Patrick, R. (2017), Whose Benefit? Everyday Realities of Welfare Reform. Policy Press.

12 Praxis CiC (2015), http://gettingby.org.uk/

13 The rate deemed by the public in 2014 to be the minimum necessary to achieve an acceptable standard of living. See: Davies, A., Hirsch, D. and Padely, M. (2014), A Minimum Income Standard for the UK in 2014. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/minimum-income-standard-uk-2014

14 Shildrick, T., MacDonald, R., Webster, C. and Garthwaite, K. (2011), Poverty and Insecurity. Life in Low-pay, No-pay Britain. Policy Press, p. 177.

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