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Working and Struggling Households

Background

There has been much discussion of the ‘Just About Managing’ (JAMs) following the Prime Minister’s first mention of the concept in her initial pubic pronouncement back in July 2016. She indicated that she wanted to improve outcomes for families who among other things, were working but perhaps not securely, and were worried about the cost of living (1). Several research organisations and political commentators have attempted to investigate the lives of JAMs by defining the group in a variety of ways – mostly rule based methods (for example Resolution Foundation(2) or Policy Exchange(3)). YouGov recently produced an analysis of households that considered themselves to be "...just about managing financially"(4), Which? has built on these approaches by defining a ‘Working and Struggling’ group that combines the experiential sense with the rules based approach. Our group is composed of people who are in work, but say that the financial circumstances of their household are either poor or very poor. This way we do not have to make assumptions or judgements about the extent to which the group should feel they are getting by or managing – instead we get the heart of that sentiment by basing our grouping -The Working and Struggling (W&S) - on an explicit survey question from our Consumer Insight Tracker as follows:

Those who said either ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ were included if they also were in employment either on a full or part time basis. The group represents at least 1 in 10 (9%) or around 2.4 million UK households (5).

Who are the “Working and Struggling”?

The Working and Struggling do not appear to differ greatly from the general working population in terms of general demographics. The average ages of both groups was 41, W&S were 55% female compared to 52% for the non-W&S group. However there are dimensions where they do differ. Two in five (40%) of the W&S group had children under the age of 18, whereas this was true of just over one in four (26%) of non-W&S households. Non-W&S households are fairly evenly spread across the four social grades, whereas W&S are disproportionally C1 (Supervisory or clerical and junior managerial, administrative or professional– 37% vs 26%), and less likely to be D/E (Semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers/lowest grade workers or those reliant on state welfare – just 16% compared to 25% in the non W&S group).

A greater proportion (just over a quarter - 26%) of W&S were privately renting compared to 15% of the non-W&S, and incomes were lower on average, with no households earning over £62,000.

Financial distress

Overall around 28% of all UK households say they are experiencing some form of financial distress (from cutting back through to defaulting on bills or housing costs), and for non-W&S households this is even lower at 25%. By stark contrast nearly two out of three (61%) W&S group households say they are experiencing some form of financial distress, with the most common forms of that distress being either traditional modes of borrowing (20% - taking a loan, credit card, authorised overdraft, or borrowing from friends or family while also cutting back) or the most severe defaulting on load, bill, or housing (19%).

Attitudes to the Economy and Personal Finances

Results from our January 2017 Consumer Insight Tracker found that nearly two in five (38%) W&Ss think that the financial situation of their household will get worse in the coming year, whereas for non-W&Ss this was just over a quarter (26%).

W&Ss were also much more likely to rate the UK economy as poor (49%), compared to non-W&Ss (29%). Both groups shared similar outlook for the UK economy in the coming 12 months with 47% (W&Ss) and 41% (non W&Ss) thinking it would get worse.

Consumer Worries

For Non-W&S households the most worried about consumer issues were Fuel prices (66%), Public spending cuts (65%) Energy Prices (62%) Interest rates on savings (60%) and the Quality of public services (59%).

Much higher proportions of W&S households were worried across all the items, but their top issues were more ‘essential’ in nature: Level of household debt (80%), Fuel Prices (79%), Housing costs (79%), Food prices (76%), Savings levels (76%), Energy prices (74%).

Trust in Sectors

Trust in industry sectors and public bodies was similar between the W&S and non-W&S groups overall. However there are still some interesting differences worth highlighting. For example, trust in the day to day banking sector is significantly lower for W&Ss (25% trust) compared to non-W&Ss (41% trust). Trades services are also trusted a great deal less by W&Ss (just 23% as opposed to 36% of non-W&Ss).

Change in Spending Intent

As expected the W&Ss are much more likely to report that they are planning on cutting back their spending on every category we ask about compared to non-W&Ss (apart from housing). Socialising (58%), alcohol/tobacco (54%), clothing and footwear (49%), big ticket items (49%) and hobbies/recreational interests (46%) are the most frequently cited.

Not many are planning on decreasing their spending on housing (2%), Broadband (10%), public transport (14%), running a car (15%), energy (18%).

Conclusion

Identifying a segment of the household population by a coherent sentiment/attitude rather than in a rule based way can be a useful approach to examine wider opinions and experiences of that group that might otherwise be overlooked. In this case we examined the opinions of a significant group of working households who felt that their financial circumstances were poor. Their pessimistic outlook appeared to be justified as defaulting on loans or housing costs was a major problem for the group, nearly one in five (19%) W&S households encountering a problem of this type compared to just 4% of other households. Furthermore 80% were worried about household debt compared to just 35% in other households, with prices of essentials (fuel, housing costs, energy, food) being much more prominent worries than for other households. Given the recent signs in the economic climate that inflation might be about to enter a new period of upward pressure, and with incomes continuing to grow at best modestly, there is a real danger that many more households will also start to feel similarly negative about their financial situation, and this means many more consumers will have to cut back and tighten their spending where they can to continue to pay for ever more expensive essentials.

References

(1) Prime Minister’s Statement 13th July 2016 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/statement-from-the-new-prime-minister-theresa-may

(2) http://www.resolutionfoundation.org/media/press-releases/britains-just-managing-families-have-experienced-a-13-year-income-squeeze/

(3) https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/overlooked-but-decisive.pdf

(4) https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/11/30/who-are-jams-37-britons-say-they-are-just-about-ma/ 

(5) Please note this can be considered an underestimate of the incidence of these types of households because the CI tracker does not identify households where the respondent is out of work themselves, but others in the house may be in work.

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