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Just Managing? What it Means for the Families of Austerity Britain

Just Managing? What it Means for the Families of Austerity Britain Mark O'Brien and Paul Kyprianou
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Read Mark O'Brien's introductory blog and a follow-up post about this book on our

These are the stories that bring the statistics of austerity and inequality to life. The dignity, work ethic and stoicism of the families in this book should haunt every politician and media commentator who has painted the false picture of a 'benefits culture' and 'shirkers and scroungers'; this illuminating book should be required reading for them.
—Kate Pickett, author (with Richard Wilkinson) of The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone

A brilliant book collecting together the evidence on just how out of touch Westminster government has become. Powerfully demonstrating why many families can no longer look forward to a safe future, and how they are coming to realise that inequality and the disdain of the wealthy is to blame
—Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography of the School of Geography and the Environment of the University of Oxford

The 'just about managing'. 'Hardworking families'. 'Alarm-clock Britain'. In recent years British political discourse has been filled with these slogans, as politicians claim to speak on behalf of families who are in work, but struggling to get by. This book allows us to hear from some of these families directly.

At a time when the impact of austerity is more relevant than ever, Just Managing? cuts through the debates and sloganeering to give some of the real people behind the headlines and statistics a chance to tell their stories. It tracks the lives of thirty working families in Liverpool over one year, as they struggle to manage on incomes at or around the National Minimum Wage. Their accounts are placed within the economic and political context that has shaped their experiences and that of millions of other working families across the country.

This book is required reading for anyone seeking to understand what life is like at the sharp end of 'austerity Britain’.

Just Managing? What it Means for the Families of Austerity Britain
Mark O’Brien and Paul Kyprianou | May 2017
244 | 24 colour illustrations | 6.14" x 9.21" (234 x 156 mm)
Open Reports Series, vol. 5 | ISSN: 2399-6668 (Print); 2399-6676 (Online)
ISBN Paperback: 9781783743230
ISBN Hardback: 9781783743247
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781783743254
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781783743261
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781783743278
ISBN Digital (XML): 9781783744176
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0112
BIC subject codes: KCR (Welfare economics), KCP (Political economy), JHBC (Social research and statistics), JHBL (Sociology: work and labour); BISAC: SOC045000 (Social Science / Poverty & Homelessness), SOC053000 (Social Science / Regional Studies), SOC050000 (Social Science / Social Classes & Economic Disparity), POL024000 (Political Science / Public Policy / Economic Policy), POL029000 (Political Science / Public Policy / Social Policy); OCLC Number: 1089438578.

You may also be interested in:


1. Understanding Poverty: Then and Now
2. The Getting By? Study

3. Money Matters
4. Working Life
5. Meeting Basic Needs
6. Home and Family Life

7. Family Views: ‘Who’s to Blame?’
8. Liars, Thieves and Honest Scousers

Appendix I: How the Research Was Conducted
Appendix II: Family Circumstances and Spending

Mark O'Brien
works as a researcher at the University of Liverpool. He has published widely in the areas of social inequality and social movements. Mark can be contacted at mtobrien@liv.ac.uk

Paul Kyprianou has worked for many years as a research consultant in Liverpool. He was a founder of Praxis, a Liverpool-based research company.

Part I. Back to the future?



1: Understanding poverty: then and now


This introduction provides a historical framing of working poverty that takes as its starting point the  Fabian study ‘Round About a Pound A Week’ conducted in south London and published in 1913. Whilst there have been great social reforms since that time that have dramatically improved the lives of the poorest, it is also the case that there is a resonance to the historical comparisons between Britain society today and the hardships of the working poor of over a century ago.


A section on wage policy argues that no new National Minimum Wage will eliminate the worst types of poverty whilst welfare cuts reduce state support, new types of conditionality make accessing benefits impossible for many and new costs arise for parents and carers as a result of closures of services and the removal of subsidies for schools and council run amenities.


The chapter comments on the question of ‘fairness’. The promises that presaged the national austerity agenda were that whilst budget cuts and welfare reform were necessary to reduce the national debt, the pain would be fairly distributed, so that those on the lowest incomes would lose the least, proportionately. In fact almost the exact reverse has transpired.


2. The Getting By? study


An account of the background to the book and the research project upon which it is based.


This chapter provides some local context. Specifically it positions Liverpool as one of the most deprived city regions in the UK. It also points to the severe cuts to local spending that have resulted from successive spending reviews imposed by central government. The families who took part in the research that underpins Tipping Point (from the original Getting By? study with 30 Liverpool families) are introduced.


Part II. The ‘Big Issues’


3. Money matters


This chapter looks at the matter of pay and specifically the National Minimum Wage and the Living Wage. The focus is upon directly financial matters that affect family life for people on low incomes.


The low pay economy is contextualised in terms of the debate around the National Minimum Wage and the Living Wage. The effect of a ‘low wage trap’ is discussed whereby workers become stuck in low paid occupations with no way ‘back, up or out’, so remaining in low paid jobs for many years and even most or all of the working lives.


What the families had to say is broken down into the following themes: feeling the financial squeeze; the wage freeze; elements of unpaid work within paid employment; the rise and meaning of ‘self-employment’; the difficulties of getting out of low income occupations; the increasing difficulties of accessing the benefits system.


The chapter finishes by pointing out that it is the combination, the cumulative effect of these and other factors that has to be appreciated for an understanding of the experience of surviving on low pay in today’s Britain.


4. Working life


This chapter considers the experience of work and the ways in which the quality of working have deteriorated over recent years, specifically job security, entitlements, contracts etc.


The erosion of many basic minimum standards in the workplace has produced a working environment for the lowest paid that is often unhealthy and even unsafe. Whist regulatory frameworks remain, implementation is often inadequate and job insecurity also makes the pursuit of basic entitlements all but impossible.


The dramatic rise of various kinds of ‘atypical’ contract, and especially zero-hour contracts means that a large minority of workers are now employed without regular working routines around set hours. This in turn leads to complications with the benefits system and punitive sanctions that arise from mistakes and misunderstandings regarding claims and payments.


The deterioration of workplace culture in some sectors is associated with lowered health and safety standards, reduced prospects for progression, arbitrary treatment and bullying.


Working life for the lowest paid has become increasingly characterised by illness due to stress and anxiety, as well as by workplace related injury.


What the families had to say is broken down into the following themes: the psychological importance of work; the impact of job insecurity; the implications of casualization for pensions; issues arising from sickness absence; maternity and paternity leave; and work-life balance.


5: Meeting basic needs


This chapter discusses the whole range of practicalities that affect the household when income is low; considering such things as weekly shopping, budgeting, costs relating to children, debt and so on.


The subject of ‘food poverty’ is discussed and also foodbanks. The participants of the research were not the poorest in their communities. However, a small number had indeed been forced to resort to local foodbanks despite being in-work or during brief spells of unemployment. ‘Fuel poverty’ is also addressed and the phenomenon of ‘eat-or-heat’ is present in some of the participants’ stories.


The rises in child care and school-related costs are discussed. These have emerged as significant for households as a range of subsidies have been lost following council funding cuts following government spending reviews. The chapter introduction also addresses the issue of debt. Debt has emerged as a central problem for increasing numbers of families on low income as they are forced into taking out loans at exorbitant rates of interests, often following crises of various types (sometimes caused by problems with the benefits system or tax credits). The result often is that short-term financial difficulties become long-term debt problems.


What the families had to say is broken down into the following themes: the sense of constant struggle; the weekly shop; childcare costs; ‘cutting back’; the impossibility of saving; the use of charity shops; budgeting; fuel poverty; the problem of cold homes; pre-payment meters; the costs of transport; debt; banks and credit cards; payday loans; door-to-door lending; pawning; credit unions; unexpected costs.


6: Home and family life


This chapter looks at issues of family life that are affected by the pressures of managing on low incomes such as maintaining  a stable home, trying to stay healthy, family relationships and so on.


The problem of poor quality housing is discussed here. Downward trends in social housing status are described, and also the associated rise in private renting. The problems that have accompanied these trends, such as insecure tenancies, rent arrears, rising rates of eviction, poor landlord accountability with respect to needed repairs and damp households, are also discussed. Problems of overcrowding and even multiple family occupancy are touched upon as particularly concerning trends.


Problems of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and diet are discussed. This is important considering the pernicious influence of the notion that such ways of living are a part of a ‘lifestyle choice’.


The pressures of low income upon family life and relationships are described. This is a crucially important area considering the consequences of such strains with respect to poor mental health, and the harm done to family binds that are important for financial, emotional and psychological support.


What the families had to say is broken down into the following themes: issues around rent; insecure tenancy status; poor living conditions; deteriorations in the neighbourhood; the ‘bedroom tax’; costs of children’s’ clothes; costs of school uniforms and school dinners; costs of ‘out-of-school’ activities; the TV as entertainment; the costs of Christmas and family occasions; mental health; worries about partners; impact of poor children’s health; problems of diet; views of the NHS; strain upon family relationships; support from ex-partners; social life; holidays.


Part III. The ‘Tipping Point’: perspectives on poverty


7. Family views: ‘who’s to blame?’


This chapter is largely quotations from the families on the broad theme of the causes behind the difficulties they are facing in life. In the main these are comments upon income inequality, social class and systematic disadvantage. They are largely opinion and as such are presented with little comment. 


What the families had to say is broken down into several themes. Opinions about: politicians; social class; discrimination; social (un)fairness; family backgrounds; income inequality; National Minimum Wage; education; opportunities for children; taxes; the NHS; social (in)justice).

8. Liars, thieves and honest Scousers

This is a summary chapter that brings together all of the main themes of the book and provides some reflections from the authors about the overall picture that they reveal of working poverty in the UK.


This chapter begins by describing the ‘emotional character’ of many of the interviews. In particular it notes that ‘anger’ of various sorts was present in much of the participants’ testimony. A number of the main themes of ‘problems-of-life’ are touched upon by way of summary.


However, some political points are made that are directly addressed to populist and cynical political misrepresentations and manipulations. These include notion that cuts can be justified by concentrating support on the ‘most vulnerable’, as well as the notion of a ‘deserving poor’.


The return of ‘absolute poverty’ as a literal phenomenon as well as a technical definitions is touched upon. The extraordinary commitment to working that was a strong theme emerging from the research is highlighted. The entrapment of low pay is commented upon to make the point that low income work is not a ‘first step’ onto an ascending escalator of wealth and economic security; indeed rather the opposite. The sense of political and social ‘disconnect’ between political elites and the realities these families were living with is commented upon.


Finally the historical ‘loop’ is closed with a reference back to the 1913 Lambeth study.

The life experiences reported in Just Managing? were told to community researchers as part of the 2014-15 Getting By? project, which was supported by the Liverpool City Council Action Group on Poverty. The study, conducted over one year, captured the experiences of thirty Liverpool families in which one or both parents were in low-paid employment. Using weekly diaries to track their income and spending, and giving regular in-depth interviews, they revealed the challenges they faced as they struggled to cope in their day-to-day lives.

The Getting By? project culminated in the creation of the gettingby.org.uk website (now archived), a dedicated YouTube channel, and in the publication of this report.