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Exploring ‘ordinary working families’ in a local context

The term ‘ordinary working family’ is now being widely used for political purposes but what does it actually mean? Nottingham Civic Exchange has been crunching the data

If we asked you what an ordinary working family (OWF) was what would you say? You might consider your own personal circumstances, media discussions, or how politicians talk about this group.

As a term it is open to interpretation and definitions vary. In our research we understand these households as a group within that broad category of people who are ‘just about managing’ (jam). For us ordinary working families are households where at least one adult is working and where there is one or more child. The broader ‘just about managing’ group could include pensioner or single person households. The social group in question has a long political history. Do you remember the ‘squeezed middle’ and ‘alarm clock Britain’?

Ordinary working families are more likely to be found in the east Midlands

than in the east, London, southeast and south west regions of the UK’

The desire to create a society that works for all is noble but these are also terms used to create a sense of political action – to help people feel they are being supported and included in challenging times. Despite reservations, we feel this largely ill-defined group is a valuable topic to explore.

What is an ‘ordinary working family’?

Established in partnership with the RSA, Nottingham Civic Exchange was set up to influence debate, maximise research, policy and practical impact and to be a bridge between Nottingham Trent University research and current policy debates.

At first we weren’t clear who could be a ‘jam’. Should we use an income definition, was it based on how people felt and their sense of economic insecurity, or on policy approaches to support this group?

Using an objective income measure proposed by the Resolution Foundation of household income between £12,000 and £34,000 per year (this measure is net of tax and benefit receipts and is equivalised to account for different household sizes), we started by trying to understand who these people were in our own city and region.

Much of the work from elsewhere started from a national viewpoint. Far less was done to consider what an ‘ordinary working family’ may actually look or feel like in a particular locality.

As a place-based think tank we were well positioned to join this debate.

Big differences in understanding

Out of the Ordinary was developed and in June we published our first report looking at available national and local data while outlining our ongoing programme. This report showed the significant differences between government, economists’ and families’ understanding of what it means to be ‘just about managing’.

Analysis of the Understanding Society survey showed that average net household income for those who see themselves as just about getting by is £34,500. We estimate there are at least six million adults in working households with income above the national average but who self-identify as ‘just about managing’.

Research from JRF highlights that a working family with two young children living in a town like Nottingham should be earning £54,069 to achieve the minimum income standard. That is higher than the current median income of £26,300 highlighting the challenge facing many households across the UK.

Ordinary working families are more likely to be found in the east Midlands than in the east, London, southeast and south west regions of the UK.

Ordinary families in Nottingham record lowest incomes in UK

In the city of Nottingham, these households are particularly affected by low pay. Compared to the UK as a whole, a higher proportion of Nottingham residents work in sectors and occupations where low pay is more common, for example caring roles and manual occupations.

Average gross pay in Nottingham City is £4,867 lower than the UK average. As a result many are unable to get onto the housing ladder and face uncertainty and steadily increasing prices from the private rental sector which has grown by 2.5% since last year (the second highest growth rate by region in the UK). Our analysis shows that average household income will be insufficient to support the purchase of an averagely priced family home in 22% of neighbourhoods across Nottingham and Nottinghamshire.

There is an income disparity between the county of Nottinghamshire and Nottingham City with the city recording the lowest gross disposable household income (GDHI) per person across the UK. A relatively large number of highly paid and highly skilled workers in Nottingham City are resident elsewhere and a lower proportion of residents are able to access or progress within the better paid and more highly skilled jobs within the city.

While this issue is not unique to Nottingham, it raises important questions regarding council tax spending and the distribution of services. The development of a Nottingham and Derby metro strategy highlights opportunities to think differently about how we create a society that works for all.

We also turned our attention to our own institution. By looking at student’s disclosed household income and location, we found that a large proportion of Nottingham Trent University’s students come from households that can be defined as ‘just about managing’.

In total 21% of our 2015 full-time undergraduate intake came from areas classed as ‘just about managing’. This figure rises to 32% of our 2015 cohort from Nottingham and Nottinghamshire.

This report is the first in a series which will support Out of the Ordinary as a programme. In partnership with the RSA, our next phase examines the policy context to understanding OWFs. Our work will improve understanding and support improvements for Nottingham and the wider region. Our programme will take a grounded approach which works with academics, students, policy makers, residents and members of struggling households. We cannot expect to develop meaningful and relevant recommendations if our work is not built from the communities we aim to support. This approach also recognises the complexity of the situation.

Nottingham Civic Exchange has launched a call for evidence to gather information and suggestions. Please visit our programme page to find out how you can take part.

  • This article was co-authored by Rich Pickford and Dr Paula Black. Rich Pickford works for Nottingham Civic Exchange helping to facilitate and develop relationships and connections within, between and across Nottingham Trent. Dr Paula Black is Director of Nottingham Civic Exchange.

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