Henning Lohmann is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hamburg, Germany. Ive Marx is Professor of Socio-Economic Sciences at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. Each of these two authors have published a substantial number of studies on low-paid work and/or in-work poverty, income inequality, and related labour market and public policy issues. Thus, they make a formidable pair of editors for this compilation.
In their introductory chapter, these two authors and editors articulate the purposes of this book. They sought to explore the growing and prevalent worldwide phenomenon of in-work poverty (IWP), and to do so by looking at its reality from different countries, including those outside of the industrialized world, and to analyze it via quantitative and qualitative approaches. After establishing the focus on IWP, the editors set out to establish how and why it is so prevalent, important, and unjust. They achieve this via a systematic, conceptual, and statistical introduction to IWP, and then layer on a range of studies looking at it from household, societal, national, and supranational perspectives.
While the term ‘in-work poverty’ might seem unusual to some, statistics are pre-sented to show that ‘working poor’ is actually a less precise term than the former. Simply put, the vast majority of the world’s poor people work. Thus, adding ‘working’ to ‘poor’ is redundant, and even misleading. Similarly, a compelling case is made, repeatedly throughout numerous chapters, that focusing solely on low-waged workers also misses the point, because poverty (and its policy remedies) should be examined at a household, not individual, level. As a result, a key message emerging from this volume is that it is necessary to look at the interrelated issues of hourly wages, workweek lengths, annual paid hours worked (i.e. seasonal and non-standard work schedules), family size, the level and accessibility of social payments, and number of household earners. Although one might hope to read examples were poverty has been solved, the presented statistics show that it continues to be an issue throughout jurisdictions in the developed and developing world, to varying degrees. But, at least, readers can find solace in the examples where (in-work) poverty is relatively rare and/or shrinking. For instance, the incidence of IWP is as low as 2% in Finland. On the other hand, in Finnish households with dependent children and only one earner, that rises to over 10%. Yet, that pales to rates of 20% or more in Germany, France, and Italy for similar households.
This compilation consists of a weighty 508 pages spread among 26 chapters, and suffice to say that it is not light reading. Certainly, the editors achieve their stated objectives, and credit must be shared with the impressive and diverse set of chapter authors who represent academic backgrounds ranging from community health, sociology, geography, and policy studies, as well as educational institutions across five continents. In addition to cross-country comparisons, there are also chapter studies zeroing in on IWP and gender gaps, immigrants’ experiences, and child care availability. One overriding theme, though, is that IWP is more prevalent among those who work less than full-time, full-year paid hours, especially in jurisdictions with limited social payments. Thus, the relationships between IWP and atypical work, and with informal sector employment, as well as with social funding, are important inclusions. Moreover, in books like these, the geographic focus tends to be limited to Europe and North America. In contrast, this compilation includes a chapter on IWP in the developing world broadly, and then separate analyses on Latin America, South Africa, East Asia, India, and Israel.
The sheer size of the text has positive and daunting effects. It is detailed to be sure, but borders on being overwhelming for readers who try to synthesize all of the chapters and ideas. Yet, it is indisputably a fascinating and convincing examination of a relevant and important phenomenon. On the negative side, because of the large number of chapters from different co-authors and the sheer length of this compilation, the book becomes slightly repetitive in parts. Also, the definition of IWP could be debated. In this book, IWP is usually defined as working at least part of the year and being in a household with total disposable income substantially less than the national median income. While this is a reasonable definition and one that has been used elsewhere, it does mean, in practice, that there will be some tangible level of IWP in all studied jurisdictions (since income dispersion occurs everywhere). Does being well below average necessarily mean poverty? Of course, defining a boundary between (generally) working versus (generally) not working is a subjective one, as is the choice to use a relative versus absolute measure of being low-income (or living in poverty) within a given country (see Chapters 2 and 4 for explorations of these issues).
As a final thought, it is difficult to identify specifically when and where this book could be used within academia. It seems unlikely that it could be used as the assigned text for any existing course within North American business, economics, or public policy programs. But, as a detailed and convincing analysis of the inequities that exist today, this book would be an invaluable reference source for anyone studying contemporary labour markets or employment issues, and public policy remedies.