The problem with low pay


The Resolution Foundation tells us that there's some great big problem with low pay in the UK. Looking at their actual statistics though it's difficult to see what the problem is. Of course, everyone would like more money for whatever it is that they do. But what keeps people in those low pay jobs seems to be that people opt to stay in those low pay jobs. Only one in four low earners has managed to permanently escape the prison of low pay in the past decade, according to a major study published today.

The Resolution Foundation think tank uncovered the most graphic evidence to date of the scourge of in-work poverty, in which millions working part-time, in sales jobs and the hospitality industry, cannot move up the income ladder. Fewer than one in five people working in restaurants, pubs, takeaways and catering left low pay for good in the past 10 years.

A scourge, eh? Well, that's what the Independent says. The report itself is a bit more measured.

And what they mention, but don't emphasise, is the interesting stuff. For example, many on low pay actively decline to take promotions that will earn them more:

Part of the reason that many of these people who are usually in employment do not progress may be to do with the limited appeal of moving into positions of greater responsibility. The limited pay increases received for moving from an entry-level position to a supervisory role were often as little as 30p or 40p extra an hour. When weighed against the additional stress which comes with the role and the hassle of rearranging their work-life balance, for many people progression may not appeal.

They also find that those who stay in low pay over the long term tend to be single mothers and a number of people who are only in the workforce intermittently. And, of course, given that part time pay is generally lower than full time pay per hour the low paid (defined as those on less than two thirds of median hourly wage) are predominantly those working part time.

When we add all of that together, what do we see? The intermittency will at least in part be women leaving the workforce to have children. Single mothers are obviously balancing that work life balance, and the most common, we would think, reason for not taking a promotion that disrupts that work life balance would be the need to take care of children. And, of course, there's many more women working part time than there are men for exactly the same reason.

It's entirely true that it's not in fact necessary for women to do the bulk of the childcare but that is the way our society generally works. So, we find women with children concentrated in those part time areas, not taking promotions, dropping in and out of the workforce as further children arrive. And thus earning low pay as these are the very things that seem to identify those who stay on low pay.

In other words the Resolution folks have simply found the flip side of the gender pay gap in the UK. That there isn't one but there is a motherhood pay gap. Women with children generally earn less than men or women without children. It's not a great stretch to move from that to the idea that women with children will be predominant among the low paid. And while they don't emphasise this this is the rough outline of their finding.

And the point is that, despite everyone wanting more money for their labours, this is a result of the choices of those individuals. There's a series of trade offs there, responsibility for higher pay, more rigid hours for higher pay, longer hours for higher pay and so on. And people are deciding which they prefer. Which ain't the higher pay.

And, given that it's all a result of individual choices there's really nothing that we should be trying to do about it.