What I learned about poverty while working in Blackpool

All of us will have to foot the bill for allowing people to fester in forgotten parts of the country.

A shuttered amusement arcade in BlackpoolGetty Images

I have just spent a week in Blackpool. The famous seaside resort is the unhealthiest town in Britain and it shows. Beyond the inebriated stag parties and pensioners sprawled out in the sun with handkerchiefs stuck on their heads, one of the first things you notice about the town are the number of people smoking and carrying around excess weight. Middle aged men and women look like they've been melted and poured into their clothes. Every young person appears to be sucking on a cigarette.

A glance at the town's health data lends credence to immediate observations of this sort. At 73.8 years for men, life expectancy in Blackpool is the worst in England. In one district of the town more than half the population smoke. Payday lenders, take-away restaurants and bookies pepper the high street. In the Bloomfield district there is reportedly an off-licence for every 250 residents.

It's easy to assume that health fads, fanning out from London, simply haven't reached this far north. But there's more to it than that. Not to put too fine a point on it, Blackpool is fat and unhealthy because it is poor. In fact, Blackpool is the poorest of Britain's big seaside towns. The child poverty rate in the town is 29.5%, rising to over 50% in some wards.

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A new study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation appears to back up this link between penury and poor health. Poverty, the study found, costs the UK taxpayer £78bn a year. £29bn of that is spent on treating health conditions associated with poverty. That figure does not include the vast sums spent on benefits. The report also notes a link between poverty and 'serious episodes' of mental illness.

None of this is new of course. Data on the link between deprivation and poor health has been available for years. However the Joseph Rowntree report is a useful reminder than poverty isn't something the middle classes can insulate themselves from. Even if you don't live in poverty yourself, and even if you don't take a particular interest in the people that do, poverty notices you. All of us will at some point have to dip a hand in our pocket to foot the bill for the consequences of allowing people to fester in forgotten parts of the country like Blackpool.

It's easy for the government to blithely disregard data like this, and point (legitimately) to the general fall in long-term poverty in recent years. Despite the proliferation of food banks, according to the Office for National Statistics 6.5% of the UK population was in persistent poverty in 2014 – the lowest rate since comparable levels began in 2008. Yet at the same time, as many as one in three (32.5%) had suffered hardship for a short period of time between 2011 and 2014 – one of the highest rates in the EU.

Even if you don't live in poverty yourself, and even if you don't take a particular interest in the people that do, poverty notices you.

This apparently contradictory data is at least partly attributable to Britain's increasingly precarious low pay economy. It's easy enough for people to get a job. The monthly employment figures from the ONS seem to bear this out: as Theresa May put it during her first PMQs, a record number of people are in employment.

This isn't an 'MSM lie', as some might suggest; more people than ever before really are in work. But more people have the sorts of soul-destroying jobs that pay poorly and offer little security for the future. At the lower end of the labour market, a job is increasingly short-term and comes with few rights and fewer guaranteed hours. Since 2009 a majority of new jobs have been created in what's sometimes termed the 'low productivity' sector – areas like cleaning, care and hospitality.

In an age when people have 'had enough of experts', to use the words of Michael Gove, throwing statistics around only gets you so far. Here, then, is an anecdote. While in Blackpool I went to get my haircut. The hairdresser, a 60-year-old man who had lived in Blackpool for 20 years, relayed to me a story about a young man he had seen earlier that morning.

"I had one in earlier and he was nearly crying," the man said as he clipped away at my hair. "He'd worked [for a local firm] for three months and thought he was doing well. He started at six o'clock – he was working six till two – and at ten to two they said, 'Right we don't need you anymore'. He said, What, till Monday? 'No we don't need you anymore full stop, don't come back'. What for? the man asked. 'What have I done wrong?' 'You've done nothing wrong, really, we just don't need you anymore'. He was in his 20s and he was nearly crying."

I've heard dozens of stories like this over the past week. In Britain's low pay economy employers can turn off a person's income like a tap.

I've heard dozens of stories like this over the past week. In Britain's low pay economy employers can turn off a person's income like a tap. There is no magic tweak to the welfare state which will magically give people access to regular hours and a reliable pay check. Getting people into work is not enough to alleviate poverty – and in the process reduce the massive cost to the taxpayer, as documented by the JRF report. According to recent figures from the IFS, two thirds of children below the government's absolute poverty line are poor despite the fact that at least one of their parents is in work.

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The best way to improve life for many of those at the bottom end of the labour market is probably, as the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has suggested this week, through a strengthening of trade unions' ability to bargain collectively. International evidence suggests that when union membership at the lower end of the economy increases there is less income inequality and job precarity. A recent study by Manchester University found that countries with a stronger culture of collective bargaining also tend on average to have higher minimum wages.

But the omens look bleak. Labour is further from power than it's been for over 30 years. Meanwhile despite Prime Minister Theresa May's talk of social justice and a crackdown on the 'privileged few', redressing bourgeoning precarity at the bottom of Britain's labour market requires an admission that has been unpalatable to Conservatives since their war on the trade unionism in the 1980s: that unions might be a better way of improving workers' rights than a reliance on benevolent employers.

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