Hard work and Theresa May

By Bernadette Meaden
May 1, 2017

In the UK today, hard work is no guarantee against poverty. People in some of the most vital and demanding jobs have the lowest incomes - and they may be about to get lower. 

In a recent interview however,  the Prime Minister revealed a worryingly ill-informed attitude towards poverty in the country she governs. Apparently unaware of the growing numbers of working families in poverty, when asked about welfare cuts making people poorer she said, "I think work is the best route out of poverty." In fact, one in eight British workers are in poverty, and two thirds of children in poverty have at least one parent working.

To suggest that if you are living in poverty then all you have to do is work harder shows a woeful lack of knowledge, and a lack of respect for those people who are working as hard as they possibly can but still struggle to feed their children. Even being told of nurses visiting foodbanks did not seem to give the Prime Minister pause for thought. Mrs May surely doesn’t think that in order to be able to eat, nurses must work harder than they already do?  

Then Mrs May said, "Yes we need a system that does provide support for those who need it, but I think we do need to incentivise people to get into the workplace.” This suggests that a reluctance to work is a significant problem. Is Mrs May not aware that her own government proudly boasts that employment is at record high levels? We do not have a problem with people being lazy, we have a problem with poverty pay for people who are working very hard.

Perhaps Mrs May was thinking of ill or disabled people whom the government finds unfit to work, but who in future will receive no more to live on than a healthy jobseeker - £73.10 per week, or £57.90 per week if they’re under 25. The reason given for this cruel cut was to incentivise people (whom the government says are unfit to work) to find a job. Not just cruel but illogical.

Mrs May showed another gaping hole in her understanding when she said that when looking at welfare, we have to think of “the taxpayers who are paying for those welfare benefits."  Mrs May appears to believe that there are two groups of people – out of work welfare recipients on the one hand, and taxpayers on the other. In fact, there is no such divide. All welfare recipients pay tax. Even people whose incomes are too low to pay income tax  will pay Council Tax, VAT, and a whole host of indirect taxes which are regressive, falling most heavily on the poorest. Indeed official statistics show that last year, the poorest 10 per cent of households paid on average 42 per cent of their income in tax, whilst the richest 10 per cent of households paid on average only 34.3 per cent of their income in tax. Some of the hardest workers may rely on welfare benefits to top up their incomes, but they then find themselves paying a higher rate of tax than the richest people in the country.

Perversely, whilst continuing to propose hard work as the solution to poverty, Mrs May’s government is presiding over cuts that will make poor working people even poorer. As the IFS has shown, the continuing roll out of Universal Credit, and planned cuts to tax credits would eventually leave nearly 3 million working households with children £2,500 a year worse off. Larger families would lose even more.

Mrs May does not seem to grasp the realities of work and poverty in the UK.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden 

Ekklesia's General Election theme for 2017 is #Vote4CommonGood. This will be explored by writers and researchers from different perspectives and backgrounds, as well as analysis of the different party manifestos in relation to the principles and policies we have advocated for many years.

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