Unemployment should be at the heart of the election debate

Adults in workless households are twice as likely to be poor as those in homes where some adults work, and 9 times as likely as homes in which all adults work.

Our guest writer is Richard Excell, senior policy officer at the TUC

In “The Costs of Unemployment”, a briefing to mark the UK launch of the European Year for Combating Poverty today, the TUC shows that adults in workless households are more than twice as likely to be poor as those in households where some of the adults are in work and nine times as likely as those in households where all the adults are in work.

Just 2 per cent of the children of couples who both have full-time jobs are poor, compared with 68 per cent of the children of couples where neither has a job, while 10 per cent of the children of lone parents in full-time paid work are poor, compared with 55 per cent of the children of lone parents who aren’t in employment.

The death rate for children of parents classified as “never having worked” or long-term unemployed is 13 times that for children whose parents work in higher managerial or professional occupations. The children of long-term unemployed people are shorter than other children, miss more time from school and receive fewer qualifications. Almost half of young people living with an unemployed head of household are not in employment, education or training, compared with 1 in 14 where they are in full time work.

When unemployment hits a family the effects include eating less healthy food, not being able to make repairs to the home and building up more debt. Unemployment also greatly stresses families – a study carried out during the 1980s recession found that unemployed men felt irritable, strained or depressed by the loss of their role as the breadwinner, while their wives were burdened by the stresses of impossible budgeting.

Long-term unemployment can unsettle young men, and be a time when they establish a pattern of hazardous behaviour – being long-term unemployed as a young man is a significant predictor of heavy and more frequent drinking when aged 27–35. Men who have been unemployed are more likely to smoke and areas with high levels of unemployment are also more likely to have problems with drug abuse.

It should not come as a surprise to find that unemployed people are about twice as likely to be unhappy as those with jobs; what is more shocking is the fact that the impact of youth unemployment on life satisfaction is still there two decades later. The effect of unemployment on mental health is now regarded as almost certain by epidemiologists.

Unemployment is a major risk factor for depression (especially among young people) and unemployed people are far more likely to commit suicide. The connections between unemployment and stress and risky behaviour also mean that unemployed people are more likely to die from heart disease. Unemployed people are not only more likely to have poor health, they also have worse prognosis and recovery rates.

Unemployment is the test of political ethics. How high a priority do politicians give it? Immediately cutting public spending means that more people will be unemployed and more people will become long-term unemployed. The debate about macro-economic policy should take into account the misery this will cause.

Voters should be asking the parties how much are they willing to invest in employment programmes; the Conservatives need to spell out much more detail about the Work Programme with which they will replace the New Deal, which we all know will be cheaper. The future of the Future Jobs Fund is an important test. The Conservatives say they will abolish it, and the Liberal Democrats have not committed one way or the other.

Possibly the most worrying thought about a change of government is what might happen to the benefits of the long-term unemployed. Michael Portillo argued last summer that we ought to assume that fit young people are not entitled to anything”, while earlier this month, Policy Exchange called for a 3 per cent “clawback” in benefit rates.

The party’s official line is unclear, but many will be worried by the failure to say that the Conservatives would at least protect the value of benefits, just as we should continue to deplore the failure of Labour to maintain the value of Jobseeker’s Allowance.

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