Female employment reduces the risk of in-work poverty
Researchers of the University of Trento analysed data from 14 European countries from 2004 to 2019. Today employed individuals belonging to single-income families are more at risk of being ‘working poor’. However, if the second partner, usually a woman, also works, the risk of poverty for the family is drastically reduced. The study has been published in European Societies
Work is essential in people's lives for self-fulfilment and to achieve a good quality of life. But having a job is sometimes not enough to avoid falling into poverty. This is especially true for single-income families.
Society has changed a lot in recent decades. Families went through financial crises, political turmoil, social instability, the pandemic. The male breadwinner model that dominated in the past, where men were the only ones to earn a salary and provide for the family, is no longer the most widespread. The key to get out of economic hardship and stay out of poverty is to have another worker in the family who, in most, is a woman.
This has been demonstrated by a study conducted by Paolo Barbieri, Stefani Scherer and Giorgio Cutuli of the Department of Sociology and Social Research of the University of Trento, who are also the founders of the Center for Social Inequality Studies (CSIS).
Who is at risk of in-work poverty? The analysis focuses on the working poor. The 'in-work poverty' indicator was proposed by Eurostat. According to this indicator, a worker is poor when he or she has been employed for at least 7 months in the income reference period and if, as a family unit, despite having a work-related income, he or she lives below the poverty line.
Low pay is one of the causes, but not the only one, of in-work poverty. Other causes include the individual characteristics and the large family size (including its demographics and the employment status of family members).
An individual's salary in fact may be appropriate for the position, but it may not be enough to provide for a large family, which can fall in working poverty.
About the study. The researchers investigated and compared the levels and determinants of in-work poverty in 14 Western European countries using EU-SILC data from 2004 to 2019. They studied the working conditions of men and women between 18 and 65. They examined, in particular, the family income, the number of children, the level of education, the working conditions of the employed family members, the type and duration of the contract.
The findings indicate that the working poor are mostly adult males, the sole earners in a multi-member family.
The researchers also demonstrate that the rate of in-work poverty risk is higher in Mediterranean European countries, where single-income families are more common: Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal.
In the specific case of Italy, the working poor are 12% of the 22 million employed individuals, that is about 2.6 million. But if you also consider family members, the figure doubles.
Unskilled and self-employed workers, individuals with non-standard contracts and people working in the business support sector and in the service economy, which employs unskilled labour, are the most at risk.
Another interesting aspect is the persistence of working poverty and the risk of experiencing poverty again. In this case too, for single-earner families, in lower social classes, with a low education level and fewer resources it is more difficult to improve their condition.
Conclusions. A number of structural factors drive these mechanisms: low wages, precarious work, low level of education, the growth of the low-productivity service sector. According to researchers, the welfare benefits awarded to the most disadvantaged classes do not reduce the risk of poverty.
"The literature on the subject – explains Paolo Barbieri, one of the authors – debates on whether distributing money creates dependence on welfare. These policies only work if they reduce the risk of returning to poverty once the measure ends or, in other words, if the beneficiary's family will move out of poverty. Our study demonstrates – he points out – that "genuine state dependence" is not so important in determining the risk of persistence of working poverty. Based on our results, creating employment opportunities while promoting active labour market policies and female employment policies is more effective than simply distributing income."
Dual-income families, the study concludes, have the potential to improve social equality, not only between men and women, but also across generations and social classes.
The study "In-work poverty in Western Europe. A longitudinal perspective" is available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/14616696.2024.2307013