Poverty and disability in the UK: why disability employment is so important

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By Diane Lightfoot, Chief Executive Officer, Business Disability Forum

Welcome to the first of our three blogs looking at the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty in the UK, which will look at the different factors affecting poverty among disabled people today. In this piece, we look at the relationship between employment and poverty.

The UN Special Rapporteur is currently visiting the UK (6—16 November 2018), exploring the realities and causes of poverty in the United Kingdom. Business Disability Forum were invited to send evidence to the Rapporteur in advance of his visit, and produced a document setting out how persistent barriers to work and services push many disabled people into poverty.

So what did we say?

Poverty among disabled people at a glance

When we talk about poverty here, we use the approach taken by the UK Government’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) to measure poverty in the UK, namely households who earn less than 60 per cent of the median household income. The current median household income is currently £27,200[1], meaning households with an income of less than £16,320 are, by definition, living ‘in poverty’.[2]

A major inquiry by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into Being Disabled in Britain[3] found that 30 per cent of working age adults in families where at least one person is disabled were living in poverty, compared with 18 per cent of households without a disabled family member. In addition, the National Policy Institute  can ascribe poverty “directly associated with disability” to 28 per cent of disabled people in the UK, which is over 3 million individuals.

In looking at the root causes of this situation, we applied Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s framework of ‘social causes’ of poverty, namely:

  • Unemployment, under-employment, and discrimination at work.
  • Low levels of skills and education.
  • An ineffective welfare system.
  • High costs of living.
  • Discrimination through work and access to services.

Disabled people have been shown repeatedly to have a magnified experiences of all of these ‘social causes’, so, put simply, they are more likely to live in poverty.

Worse, these same factors prevent many disabled people from ‘Going Places’, progressing into (or within) work, accessing services, and improving their living situations.

Employment and its problems

An abandoned shop front in the US courtesy of Pixabay

There is no doubt that jobs can transform lives – but the opportunities have to be there first

Employment opportunities, and the extent to which they are accessible or inaccessible, can be make-or-break when it comes to moving in and out of poverty.

But disabled people are still less likely to be employed that non-disabled people. There exists a 32 percentage point gap between the employment rate of disabled and that of non-disabled people. Currently, 48 per cent of working age[4] disabled people are in work, compared to 81 per cent of non-disabled people, meaning less than half of disabled people of working age are in work.[5]

This is despite the overall employment rate in the UK being at its highest for forty years.[6]

Sadly even this is only half the story. There are also employment gaps between different groups of disabled people. Of note, we see people who require ‘human support’ rather than technological solutions are at most risk of not getting or falling out of work due to the ‘cost’ and lack of funding to provide the support that works for them. The groups who experience this most are people with learning disabilities, severe mental health conditions, and people who require ‘human’ communications support (such as interpreters).

Then there is the problem of getting on. Research carried out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows disabled people who are in work also experience an often significant pay gap – a reported 13 per cent pay gap for disabled men, and 7 per cent for disabled women.

As with employment gaps, there are impairment-dependent pay gaps. People with learning disabilities, severe mental health conditions, and neurological conditions experienced a bigger gap than other impairments (for example, the biggest pay gap exists for men with learning disabilities, which at the time of writing stands at an unacceptable 60 per cent).[7]

Why is this?

We would suggest that these gaps are a consequence of recurring, systemic discrimination across all levels of society including, as above, unemployment, progression in employment, lack of support when in work, lack of access to inclusive healthcare and support services, and lack of accessible transport to fully take part in training and career development opportunities.

Closing the gap

Of course, addressing this is a central reason that Business Disability Forum came together in the first place, twenty-seven years ago.

Hundreds of businesses employing millions of people have made great strides towards levelling the field since then.

It takes a lot of work, as any one of our Members and Partners will tell you. An effective approach to equality involves the whole organisation, from its policies to its image, from its managers to its training, from its offices to its website.

But if an organisation brings its different teams and elements into alignment on this issue, it can become a hugely powerful force for closing these gaps and enabling people to ‘go places’ – in their careers and their lives.

The causes of poverty among disabled people in the UK are hugely complex and interlinked, but opening up employment opportunities can be a decisive move in the right direction.

As the UN Special Rapporteur continues his visit, we will release more blogs exploring this hugely important topic, including extra costs and the effectiveness of social welfare measures. Stay tuned.

Read our full response to the UN Rapporteur’s call of evidence here and our statement to the press regarding the visit here.

[1] As per Office for National Statistics, Living Costs and Food Survey, 10 January 2018 release.

[2] National Policy Institute, press release August 2016.

[3] Equality and Human Rights Commission (April 2017), Being Disabled in Britain: A Journey Less Equal.

[4] “Working age” in this context is defined by the Office for National Statistics as people between the age of 16 and 64.

[5] Office for National Statistics, Labour Market Status of Disabled People, 14 August 2018. The Department for Work and Pensions are taking this employment gap seriously and this has led to a number of strategies (such as the Work, Health and Disability green paper which led to the Improving Lives: The Future of Work, Health and Disability strategy and working groups (such as the Work and Health Unit) forming to close the gap.

[6] Office for National Statistics, Labour Market Statistics, September 2018.

[7] Equality and Human Rights Commission (2017), The Disability Pay Gap.

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