Twenty-eight-year-old Laura* is on the cusp of being in a situation known as 'in work poverty', ie. she has a job but is still on the poverty line. She’s a full-time member of the support staff team at a school in Bournemouth. She loves her job but her wages – which come in at £1,000 a month after tax – barely stretch to cover her expenses.
Laura lives with her partner, who also works full time as a trainee surveyor, and their 8-year-old son.
"It feels expensive to live in Bournemouth," she says. "Rent is a huge chunk of what we earn. We’re lucky – our landlord hasn’t put our rent up too much – but it’s still £700 a month, council tax is £120, then we have all of our other bills plus childcare which is about £400 a month."
The oft-repeated narrative about young people today is that they’re feckless and wasteful, unable to buy homes because they’re blowing all their disposable cash on avocados and coffees but Laura tells a different story. Her essential expenses swallow up all of her wages before she and her partner have had time to think about doing anything else, be it a holiday, a day out or even getting a takeaway.
Sadly, Laura's story is far from unique. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has just released a report which reveals that Britain has seen the number of 'working poor' jump dramatically since the 1990s. Right now, three out of five people below the official poverty line live in a household where at least one person is working.
I don't know what it's like to not live on a budget.
There are, according to the IFS, two reasons for this: expensive housing and weak wage growth. In fact, house prices and rents have been rising faster than wages for quite some time now. They noted that while there are actually fewer unemployed people now, there are more people, like Laura, who are technically in work and struggling because of low earnings and high living costs.
"We never have much left at the end of the month," she explains. "We don’t receive any benefits – which we did when we both worked part-time – because we earn slightly too much as a household. To qualify for child tax credits, your annual income needs to be less than £16,105 and we’re just over that. We’re on the cusp of being in poverty and it feels like we’re worse off than when we worked less. At least, before, we had the security of knowing we qualified for benefits."
New data from the Resolution Foundation confirms what the IFS has found. They say that young people in Britain aged between 18 and 29 have less left over after housing costs than older generations did at the same age, making them 7% poorer in real terms than their elders were at the same age in 2001.
"You can’t dwell on it too much," Laura says firmly. "I wouldn’t change what I do for the world but sometimes I do think about people working in banks, earning lots of money, and feel a little bit resentful. Teachers and support staff are doing so much to help future generations and the wages just don’t reflect that – that’s why teachers and nurses are using food banks."
We don’t know exactly how widespread the use of food banks is among people in full-time work, but we do know that the Royal College of Nursing has started giving out hardship grants to medical staff in full-time work to cover the cost of living expenses.
Young people in Britain aged between 18 and 29 today have less left over after housing costs than older generations did at the same age.
"If something went wrong I don’t really know what we would do," Laura adds. "If one of our phones broke, or the TV died, I’m not sure where we would find the money to replace it. I don’t know what it’s like not to live on a budget."
The IFS says that the number of people experiencing in work poverty rose from 13% in 1994-95 to 18% in 2017. This might not sound like a huge increase but it means that there are about eight million people living in what’s known as 'relative poverty' right now.
Bex Bailey, the media manager at the Young Women’s Trust, told Refinery29 that young women are particularly affected.
"Low pay is trapping too many hardworking people in poverty," she explained. "Young women are especially likely to work in low-paid sectors and under-25s can legally be paid less for the same work because they are not entitled to the legal National Living Wage."
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), England has some of the most expensive childcare in the world and Bex confirms that this is a huge factor.
"For many, an hour of childcare costs more than an hour’s wages," she told Refinery29. "That’s why Young Women’s Trust is calling on the government to give young women the right skills and support to find jobs, ensure decent and flexible jobs are available, and extend the National Living Wage to under-25s, so they are paid the same wage for the same work."
However, those without children are struggling too. Twenty-three-year-old Nalani from Bristol works in hospitality on zero-hour contracts. Some weeks, she can earn good money – perhaps £200 or £300 – but her work is inconsistent.
Nalani’s rent is £430 a month; she shares with six other people. Her landlord has just told her that’s he’s putting the rent up to £500 a month because their annual contract is up.
She’s worried that she might have to move home to Berkhamsted soon, because her job just doesn’t pay her enough to live on.
"It’s wearing," she says, "I worry about the cost of living all the time. I’m now one of those people who can’t really relax about it ever. I can’t even go out and get myself a pair of shoes that I know I need for work without thinking, These cost me half a shift’s wages."
She finds zero-hour contracts, which are common in her line of work, particularly difficult. "On a week when I’m not earning much, I’ll just be eating rice or pasta on its own. That’s fine, it’s like student living, but it’s something I thought would improve, particularly if I was working all the time. As an adult you’re aware of what healthy eating looks like but it’s not realistic if you can’t afford to buy food that’s good for you."
Nalani hopes that things will improve. Like Laura, she wants to progress, even if she doesn’t have the headspace to think about what that might mean right now.
"It’s difficult to come up with ambitions when you’re working all the time and trying to make ends meet," she concludes. "I don’t really know what I want to do now."
*Names have been changed to protect identities