I’ve just finished watching the whole series of Boys from the Blackstuff (a pivotal drama set in recession-hit Liverpool in the early 1980s) which I couldn’t help but find moving even though it was in many places transparently manipulative and though I don’t subscribe entirely to the politics on offer in it.
Characteristically, it made me wonder about the statistics behind these stories of men on the dole only able to support their families through working in the black economy. Of course the main way in which the unemployed have benefited since 1982 is that there are a lot more (low paid) jobs available for them and more help and training available to get then those jobs – that is where the emphasis of government policy has gone – but nonetheless I wondered to what extent the lot of the remaining unemployed has improved since that time.
I have found a table from the government with the weekly rates of the main social security benefits but they only go back to 1993 and there must have been a hundred different kinds of benefit listed which made it difficult to figure out what a typical unemployed household might have received. The very useful UK Poverty site also only goes back to 1996 – it at least shows both pensioners and couples with young children on benefits appear to be nearly 40% better off now – after inflation – than they would have been in 1998. But for a couple without children who are on benefits their income would not have changed at all adjusted for inflation over that period, leaving them 20% poorer relative to average earnings. But where should I look if I want to get a longer historical perspective on UK poverty? All I found about the 1980s was this depressing fact from the ‘key facts‘ at the poverty site: “The numbers of people on relative low incomes [60% of median income] remained broadly unchanged during the 1990s after having doubled in the 1980s”.