JRF Poverty Monitor: An opportunity for the NI Executive to leave a more tangible legacy than the ‘eaten bread’ of peace?

Joseph Rowntree Foundation (the guys who funded the research behind our community asset transfer ‘debate’) Monitoring report on poverty and social exclusion in Northern Ireland put together a great morning of presentation and conversation last week.

It consisted of three parts. The presentation, kicking off with presentations from the two authors, segueing into a very short questions and answers session and then, we all talked amongst ourselves.

There were a few bits of good news:

– before the recession, work rates were lower in Northern Ireland than in the Republic. After the recession, the opposite is true, although this may also be a function of a much more dynamatic private sector in the Republic.

– the gender gap between men and woman’s full time pay rate has closed. Completely. That again is in part a function of the major role played by the private sector plays in evening out employment conditions.

And in education there were the usual residual advantages accruing to Northern Ireland over Britain:

In the last five years, there has been notable improvement in the levels of educational qualifications of Northern Ireland’s school leavers. The proportion of children leaving school without 5 GCSEs at A*–C (including English and maths) has fallen from

74 per cent to 69 per cent for children on free school meals and 42 per cent to 36 per cent for other children. So there has been improvement for all children, but no closing of the gap between deprived and non-deprived pupils.

These GCSE and A Level results are better than England and Wales. 75 per cent of GCSEs taken in Northern Ireland achieved an A*–C grade, compared with 67 per cent in England and Wales (Scotland figures are not available for comparison). At A Level, 84 per cent of grades were between A* and C, compared with 76 per cent in England and Wales.

The gap in GCSE and A Level converts into a bigger gap still in terms of participation in education after leaving school. The proportion of 18-year-olds going on to higher education was 45 per cent in 2012, far higher than England (35 per cent), Scotland or Wales (both 30 per cent).

Interestingly someone at our table noted that we would not do so well if Scotland had been desegregated from the GB figure. The English figure with its large inner urban populations draw the GB figure downwards.

The higher than average level of worklessness is explained by two things.

First, students make up a larger proportion of the working-age population in Northern Ireland – 7 per cent, compared with 4 per cent in Great Britain. The second reason is that a larger proportion of the Northern Irish population are workless due to long-term sickness or disability – 7 per cent compared with 4 per cent.

Measuring poverty

There was increase in in-work poverty. This is considered to be 60% of the median earnings (think, average industrial wage and then whack 40% off it). A relative measure, it’s often criticised for not having an absolute quality to it, and is regarded by somd as a sneaky attempt to suborn public sympathy for the purposes of the so-called ‘anti poverty industry’.

But Rowntree argue it’s useful to policy makers as a measure of the capacity of people to ‘participate’ in wider society (see this thread last week on the Premiership to see an example of ‘participation’ that is not quite what it seems)…

Anyway, by 2009/10, the report finds that half of children in poverty in Northern Ireland actually lived with a working parent. It also notes that:

…the hours worked both by individuals and across households are important.

The number of full-time jobs has fallen slightly in the last five years, from 470,000 to 450,000. The number of part-time jobs has remained steady at 250,000. Before that, the number of part-time jobs grew by 33 per cent in the decade to 2006. The number of full-time jobs grew by 16 per cent; part-time work makes up a growing proportion of the total number of jobs in Northern Ireland.

This links to the finding above on in-work poverty. The vast majority of children in low-income, working families live with both parents. Part-time earnings are often not enough to lift a family with two adults out of poverty.

As well as needing full-time work, a household will often need all the adults to be in paid work to move out of poverty. Northern Ireland has quite a high proportion of workless households (21 per cent), but a higher proportion of single-earner households (31 per cent) than any country or region in Great Britain. If that single earner is on a low wage, their earnings are unlikely to be sufficient to lift their family out of poverty.

Two stories in Education

The issues are twofold.

First, can the ambitions of the 45 per cent of 18-year-olds going on to further education be met by the job market in Northern Ireland? Second, not all school leavers choose to go into education. School leavers on free school meals are twice as likely as other pupils to go into employment or training (40 per cent of boys and 20 per cent of girls on free school meals do so). If the falling numbers of school leavers going into employment or training are reflecting a lack of opportunity, what policy responses are available to help these young people?

Pensioner Poverty

…risk of poverty for pensioners is higher in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain, and the gap is growing. 21 per cent of pensioners in Northern Ireland live in poverty, a slight rise on the earlier figures. In Great Britain, 16 per cent of pensioners are in poverty, a fall of 4 percentage points over the same period. So not only is pensioner poverty higher in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain, the trends are heading in opposite directions.

Pensioners in Northern Ireland are more likely than those in Great Britain to be entirely reliant on state support for their income. 40 per cent of single pensioners and 25 per cent of couples have no income other than the state pension and pension credits. In the UK as a whole, these figures are 20 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.

This then has a knock-on effect on the benefits system. Rather more pensioners in Northern Ireland claim the guarantee part of Pension Credit than in Great Britain – 27 per cent compared with 17 per cent.

The high proportion of pensioners in Northern Ireland reliant on state support is likely to continue. Across all age groups, the proportion of people in employment who are contributing to a pension is lower in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain. Focusing more closely on those nearing retirement age, the proportion of employees aged 45–64 in Northern Ireland who are not contributing to a pension is, at 38 per cent, higher than the Great Britain figure by 6 percentage points.

Into the poor west

Across Northern Ireland, the highest levels of poverty are found in the west, both rural and urban areas. Some 23 per cent of people in the urban west and 24 per cent in the rural west were in poverty in the three years to 2009/10. By contrast, 17 per cent of those in the urban east and 17 per cent of those in the rural east lived in such households. The figure for Belfast was 20 per cent.

The poverty rate among Catholics is, at 26 per cent, significantly higher than among Protestants (19 per cent). By way of a comparison, 26 per cent is higher than any other UK country or English region outside London. It is lower than any non-white ethnic group in the UK.

The Programme for Government mentions tackling rural poverty specifically. Clearly, in the rural west, poverty is very high. But the rural west and the rural east, from where a lot of people commute to work in Belfast, are very different and the relative affluence of those who commute can hide the poverty of those who do not.

Gap in employment rate by religion varies regionally

In the three years to 2010, 28 per cent of working-age Protestants and 35 per cent of working-age Catholics were not in paid work. Catholics were more likely to lack paid work than Protestants across all the sub-regions, though there were significant variations.

The difference was small in Belfast and the east of Northern Ireland – 37 per cent of Catholics lacked paid work compared with 34 per cent of Protestants in Belfast.

In the east the figures were 30 per cent and 27 per cent. In the north of the province, though, 45 per cent of Catholics were not in paid work compared with 31 per cent of Protestants.

There was some general pessimism about the willingness or the capacity of the current administration to deal with some or all of these issues. It does not make it easy for the Executive that so much of the social welfare bill and policy is dictated through the relative of the block grant…

But it was pointed out that we have a regional administration with an enviable prospect of multiple terms in office, who might begin to consider that the Peace Process is not the most enduring of legacies to leave behind them… The strategic reflation of the Republic’s economy took something like forty years to enact…

A broader vision of a future Northern Ireland might see poverty relief not as short term object of good in itself but as part of a regeneration of a society that remains bruised and untrusting after many years of communal violence…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty