Living income must also be a part of North East Inner City revival

Five lampsEarlier this week, the North East Inner City (NEIC) task force issued their first progress report. This excellent initiative was set up in 2017 with the ambition of supporting long term economic and social regeneration of Dublin’s north east inner city. At its heart are Sean McDermott street, Sheriff street, Portland Row, Summerhill, Ballybough and all their surrounding areas. To those of us who live or work there, it is very obvious that the scale of the challenge is huge. Resilient and proud, yes but with some of the rates of joblessness across the city.

The list of initiatives is long, the range is broad-encompassing security, the physical landscape, sport, community organisation, training and career guidance.  On top of existing state agency and Dublin City Council funding, extra has been provided to fund specific projects. So far so good, but I couldn’t help wondering about the immediate and longer-term impact of these initiatives on the area. Together, these actions are very important in striving to make the north east inner city, in the words of chair Michael Stone, a “safe attractive, vibrant, living and working environment for all.”  But will that impact persist when the extra funding is exhausted and the task force has to be stood down in a few years time?

Over the past decade, a lot of research has been undertaken about the impact of policies designed to boost areas of high disadvantage in the world’s major cities.  Most agree that a high level of employment is vital to regenerating an area. But its not just a job, it must be a good job with a fair income that can afford a worker and his/her family a decent standard of living. To be fair to the Chair of the NEIC task force, he recognises this, he talks about ensuring there are real job offers by local employers to local people.

How this is delivered is another matter. Measures to boost employment such as training, education and transport, business and telecommunications infrastructure have been shown to be necessary but not sufficient to deliver a persistent employment boost to the area. Issues such as skills mismatches, access to workplace experience, the quality of education and training and job quality have given rise to more disappointing outcomes than were expected.  The NEIC task force recognises some of these issues- they want to improve access to apprenticeships in 2018 and local businesses are encouraged to take on students for work experience.

However, the missing element in all these deliberations is income. The task force progress report rightly highlights the very high levels of unemployment in the area; 19% for women and almost a quarter of all working age men (24%) do not have a job. This is based on data from Census 2016 across 74 small areas in the north east inner city. However, the majority of the working age population in the north east inner city do have a job. And the issue then becomes about income and the adequacy of that income to provide for the worker themselves and their dependents.

The CSO’s census data from 2016 provides us with an insight into the types of jobs people in the north east inner city have. The rates of non reporting on certain census questions is above the national average, so we exclude them from our analysis, which may have the effect of creating a rosier picture than is actually the case.

Of the 5,148 households in our analysis located across the district electoral divisions (DED) of Mountjoy A and B, Rotunda A and B and North Dock C that encompass most of the areas names above, 21% of are headed by a person who is semi skilled or unskilled, compared with 14% for the whole of Dublin city.

In terms of occupations, there are fewer persons in managerial and professional roles living in the north east inner city which we might expect. The numbers in skilled trades is slightly above average for Dublin city, and again the numbers in what are termed “elementary occupations” is almost double (21%) the average for Dublin city (11%).

In their 2017 paper, “Job creation for inclusive growth for cities”, veteran researchers on the livable, inclusive cities question, Andy Pike, Danny McKinnion and their co-authors look at the probabilities of being low paid, underemployed or insecure amongst different occupations. When controlling for individual characteristics they find that there is over a 40% chance of being in a low paid, insecure or underemployed job if in an “elementary” occupation. These elementary occupations are found in the retail, hospitality, caring and leisure sectors.

These sectors were never highly paid, but many hotels and retail outlets would have traditionally afforded a decent income to their workers living in the north east inner city many year ago. Now most of this employment is on the national minimum wage or just above it and has very low levels of trade union membership.

So the answers to reviving the north east inner city are not solely about getting people into work, nor improving the area’s security and making available more amenities. Nor are the answers solely to be found in an area based strategy such as the North East Inner City task force- albeit this is very important. The answers also lie in national policy and in particular, we need to think about how to improve low wage workers’ income. A large share of the population of the north east inner city are in “elementary”, semi skilled or low formal skilled occupations with a high probability of being low paid, insecure and/or underemployed.

A living income isn’t strictly about a worker’s wage but about their hours of work and their terms and conditions in terms of sick pay and other benefits. Government can offer better support for a living income in low paid sectors through a number of mechanisms; encouragement for negotiated wage agreements in low paid sectors. To date, some sectors are refusing to engage in the Government established Joint Labour Committees designed to negotiate terms and conditions and secondly, Government can support workers’ right to be recognised by employers for collective bargaining purposes.

Getting this right along with the area based initiatives will be crucial to overcoming inter-generational disadvantage in the north east inner city.