How are work and poverty linked? Developing an evidence-informed view

Anthony Haynes

Anthony Haynes writes: From the outset of this blog, back in 2013, we have been interested in the stories that research can tell us about the world of work.

One of our earliest posts, for example, featured some research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) about the extent to which employment provided a route out of poverty.

Here we return to the JRF website to review it as a long-term source of research findings.

JRF’s central focus is not work, but poverty: it describes itself as an independent social change organisation working to solve UK poverty. Obviously, though, the themes of poverty and work are inter-related, so in practice many of JRF’s studies focus on work too — sometimes with surprising results.

For example, one lens that JRF has used to explore the relationship between work and poverty is productivity.

Intuitively, we tend to believe that improvements in productivity benefit workers’ pay. JRF’s research found that can indeed happen, but it is not always the case.

Results vary between sectors. In businesses services as a sector, increases in productivity are associated with a decline in pay: whereas in retail, wholesale, and, especially, construction. the relationship is positive.

JRF concludes that:

To raise productivity and drive up pay, productivity strategies for low-wage sectors such as retail and hospitality should focus on: increasing the proportion of workers in on-the-job training; improving management practices; increasing the percentage of workers using ICT; and reducing the share of temporary workers.

JRF also found that pay levels can influence productivity: for example, “NLW upratings have driven firms to seek ways to increase productivity”.

A second lens for examining the relationship between work and poverty is the role of employers and investors.

For example, another JRF study found that the use of fringe benefits can play a major role in mitigating living costs — one that is often under-utilised. The study indicated employers who recognise the value of fringe benefits could “reap the rewards of improved employee engagement, productivity and performance”.

On a practical level, the study proposed a framework of good practice, consisting of a series of seven key steps that employers can take.

An earlier study focused on work specifically in the retail sector. It found that just over a half of retail workers feel over-qualified for what they do.

The study suggests that this represents an under-utilised pool of human potential and that, as a consequence, there is:

Significant potential to increase productivity if people are given the opportunity to perform at the level of responsibility that they feel capable of…there is scope for firms to unleash more of the talents of their colleagues through job redesign, with
a particular focus on those who seek control over their working hours. 

Overall, we’ve found the JRF website to be a consistent source of insights into the world of work.

The research reports are professionally edited and designed and the findings are accessible on a number of levels — from selected highlights for an ultra-quick read, through abstracts of executive summaries, to full reports.





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