Sunday, August 26, 2007

Social Issues in Europe

Getting ready for going back to Georgia, I've read a lot of hardback books (too heavy for the luggage) and also dealt with some of the journals I get, which can be a bit of a dry read. Better to keep the 'reading books' for Georgia!

But always, when I pick up the journals, some of the articles turn out really interesting! Often it's the little details which the article really isn't about that are really quite fascinating. Here are some snippets randomly selected from the 'Journal of Social Policy':

A study (October 2007 issue, Levy, Lietz and Sutherland) comparing state financial assistance for families with children in Austria, Spain and the UK comes out with the interesting statistic that in about 2003 in Austria 3.7 per cent of children lived in families with no income earning parent. In Spain it was 7.8%, but in the UK it was a whopping 18.9%! That's almost every 5th child; almost two thirds of these are in single parent families. The poverty rate among children in the UK now is around 25%, down from 33% 10 years ago. The UK recently came bottom of a league table of 21 industrialised countries measuring the well-being of children. Appalling, isn't it? What are we doing to our children? No wonder they go around killing each other. If you think that almost every 5th child does not have a model of people getting up in the morning (or in the evening) regularly going to work, and that many more children may have relatives who go to work in 'lousy jobs' with very irregular hours, where it's not the work that is flexible, but the worker.

Another article (July 2007, Ridge) writes about the perceptions of children from poor families, mostly single-parent ones, whose parents move off welfare into work (in London, UK). Living in a family on welfare (income Support) means that as a child you miss out on many things you might want to do with your friends, and probably it might make you prone to being bullied or worse. While the children generally welcome the improved quality of life, they also see it very much as a family project, where they have to contribute to the well-being of the family by taking on jobs, getting themselves up or putting themselves to bed. Those children whose mothers took on insecure jobs themselves suffered from the uncertainty (eg some children went to school ill, so the mothers would not lose a day's pay while looking after the child). Children whose mothers were not able to continue working and who returned to welfare found this particularly hard to take. The quality of childcare was also an issue of concern, with breakfast clubs and after-school activities seen as rather stigmatising. This can also mean that those children whose mothers work school hours only might be resistant to mum increasing her hours. The point of the article being that when making policy decisions about getting people back into work governments should consider the needs of all those who are affected by this.

An article by Hartley/Dean (October 2007) in the same issue discusses experiences of the work-life balance in the UK. The work-life balance has been much talked about by the Government in recent years, seeing that people are often expected to work very long hours indeed (especially government decision-makers, public sector workers, but also people in private companies including companies like Microsoft who make the working environment so nice that people may not wish to leave - there's a fascinating book by Madeleine Bunting on this: 'Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives'). 20% of people work more than 45 hours per week (the European working time directive stipulates 48 hours as a maximum, but many companies expect their employees to sign away their right under this legislation). Bearing in mind that many people also have a very long commute. This study was carried out on an inner London housing estate, speaking to 42 working parents. People felt it was difficult to achieve a work-life balance, given that they often had to forego a good income and prospects in order to obtain family-friendly working conditions. Childcare was patchy, so people kept having to juggle their arrangements. Many of the people in this survey were also eligible to the work tax credits (a government subsidy), but some were scared to claim this since there has been a long history of faulty administration, with the benefit suddenly stopping, or even worse being recouped. The paper identified four types of impacts on people:
1) the guilty worker who has to put work before the family (eg a bank nurse who gets called out often at short notice);
2) the reluctant carer who has to take care of the family when they would like to put more into their work;
3) the grateful worker - who also put their work before their family but were glad to have a job
4) the lucky carer - where people felt lucky that they were able to put their family before work. These felt that the work-life balance worked for them (some didi not work, others worked as child minders or foster carers, or they had especially good managers).

Their main worry was the powerlessness in dealing with unpredictable jobs, and while some companies had good policies relating to work-life balance, it depended very much on the line managers whether this was applied. Interestingly, the participants were vague on their entitlements under employment legislation, and had an 'alarming' lack of knowledge of their state support entitlements. Frightening!

An article by Milne, Hatzidimitriadou and Wiseman describes the situation facing older people in rural England. While life in these areas is fine when you are a fit retiree, it becomes much more difficult as people get frailer, and access to services, and even shops becomes more difficult - in addition in England (unlike Scotland and Wales) services are not planned with a rural population in mind. Imagine you can't drive and you live in a village without a shop - rural public transport in England is pretty prim. A friend living in a remote corner in Scotland faced a similar situation when her husband had a stroke, and spent some months in hospital - at a distance of a one-hour-journey on a single track road followed by a ferry trip.

In April 2007 Eleni Karagiannaki writes about the effect on customer services of the new integrated Jobcentres plus, which provide labour market activities as well as access to cash benefits. She finds that generally they help people get back into work more easily, but oy vey, the error rate in benefits administration leaves something to be desired. Experience tells me that the UK social assistance system is so complicated that expecting staff to know the details of more than two benefits is asking the impossible, especially given their low salaries.

That's quite enough intense social stuff, no?