Stepping up: supporting individuals to progress out of low pay

By Teresa Priest


11 10 2018


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The motivation behind Step Up was simple – to stay true to our charitable mission!

Walcot Foundation has made grants for the relief of poverty in Lambeth for more than 350 years but Step Up is the first time we have funded support for people in work.  We were making lots of grants helping low income Lambeth residents into employment, but it was no longer possible to ignore the growing number who continued living in poverty.

We took a collaborative approach towards addressing this problem, facilitating focus groups with employment support providers at an Open Space event at Lambeth Town Hall with Trust for London.  The findings convinced us that workers could be supported to increase their earnings. But how to do so effectively, taking into account the diversity of their circumstances, aspirations and challenges?  This would require a network of local provision enabling individuals to access a range of support and opportunities. It therefore seemed logical to develop a partnership approach between the organisations delivering pilots, providing opportunities to share good practice.

We were lucky to find some equally motivated partners with real expertise: co-funder Trust for London, Timewise Foundation – one of the few organisations who had piloted this type of service, evaluator the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion (later Learning and Work Institute) – who had conducted considerable research into low pay, and six enthusiastic providers to pilot services.  We held quarterly meetings for all the partners plus our ‘anchor institutions’ – strategically important organisations that could support the programme – Lambeth Council and Hyde Housing. Learning events disseminated the findings more widely.

We have learnt a lot from Step Up about ‘what works’ in this new area of provision and I thoroughly recommend the comprehensive year two evaluation report produced by L&W.  However here are some thoughts.

Firstly, the trajectory from low pay to better work is not straightforward. Some clients improved their income by taking a pay cut but moving to jobs nearer home or by saving on childcare.  Designing performance indicators that reflect the range of successful outcomes is consequently tricky.  As is defining an average cost or time taken – some Step Up providers have supported individuals to improve their pay several times.  ‘Zero hours’ and the ’gig economy’ complicate this.

Secondly, you can tackle this issue through work with employers or – as Step Up largely did – by focussing on supporting individuals.  Both are undoubtedly necessary, but if your priority is to achieve tangible change in individual lives, it seems important to support workers now rather than relying solely on the ethos of ‘better work’ spreading across low-paying sectors in the longer term.

In-work poverty unfortunately looks unlikely to disappear anytime soon and it is difficult to see how the other initiatives we fund – particularly supporting children and young people – can have a lasting impact if they struggle to meet their basic needs despite the hard work of their parents. Whilst demonstrating one way of adapting our funding in order to continue meeting the need our charity was established to address, Step Up has taught us considerable lessons about what is needed to support low-paid workers to progress. I look forward to taking these lessons forward and am confident that by continuing to work together, through initiatives like the Better Work Network, we can maximise the impact of schemes designed to improve earnings and quality of work.

Teresa Priest, Walcot Foundation