Freedom of Information shows no evidence for thousands of 'never-worked' families

5 July 2012

Earlier this year the Guardian ran an editorial attempting to debunk a 'convenient untruth' - the belief that there are potentially thousands of 'never-worked' families living on what have been termed the 'Shameless estates' of Britain.

The claim dates back to at least 2008, when former National Director of Health and Work, Dame Carol Black, while investigating the UK's incapacity benefits system claimed that there were households in which three generations of men had never worked. This prompted the Mail to claim:

"Thousands of children are growing up in families where their parents and grandparents have never worked."

Fast forward to a year later, Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith (later installed as Work and Pensions Secretary) made the same claim at the Centre for Social Justice:

"Life expectancy on some estates, where often three generations of the same family have never worked, is lower than the Gaza Strip."

Full Fact was intrigued by this repeated claim, so we sent our own Freedom of Information request to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department of Health (DH), asking simply whether they had any evidence to back up these figures.

The DH had no relevant information, and the response we received from the DWP was less than encouraging:

"Information on the number of children growing up in families where their parents and grandparents have never worked is not available, as there is no suitable data source which would allow us to produce a robust and representative estimate of this persistent multigenerational worklessness."

The response casts some doubt on the original claims. What makes matters worse is that the DWP also confirmed that Dame Black's comments referred to personal observations gathered for her review rather than official figures.

This year's Guardian editorial by contrast draws on research published in a paper by Lindsay Macmillan for the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO) at the University of Bristol. They used cohort studies including the National Child Development Survey (NCDS) and the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) aiming to measure intergenerational worklessness.

They found that, while workless households were certainly a problem, worklessness across two generations accounted for only a small fraction of households, and those with two-generations who had 'never worked' accounted for around 0.1 per cent of all households, around 26,000.

The study doesn't consider the proportion of households with three generations of worklessness, however it could be expected to be lower than this.

Equally, there are no figures available that would allow us to say that there are no households with three generations who have never worked, and the original claim was of course based on personal observation.

But without proper statistical evidence to indicate that this is at all widespread on the scale implied by the claimants, we can't yet treat the claims with a great deal of credibility.

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