Thursday, 28 February 2013

Poverty: the state of being extremely poor?

A recent government consultation has been looking afresh at the issue of child poverty - DrugScope, Adfam and Alcohol Concern submitted a joint response. 

The Labour government elected in 1997 made the reduction of child poverty, which had increased substantially since the late 1970s, a priority area. Some progress had been made but by the mid-2000s that had stalled [1], hampered by stagnant or falling real incomes in some parts of the job market, rising costs and unemployment.

In 2006, the Conservative Party signed up to the then Labour government’s ambitious target of ending child poverty by 2020 [2] and supported the Child Poverty Act 2010 [3], whilst claiming that many of the children who had benefited from Labour’s policies were in households that had only just been lifted above the income  poverty line – “poverty plus a pound”, in the words of Nick Clegg.

The 2010 Act set four criteria for measuring poverty and targets to meet by 2020, primarily relating to relative, persistent and absolute poverty, and material deprivation – broadly the same measures taken across the EU and beyond.

The consultation

One of the drivers of the recent consultation [4] is that a fall in median income from 2008 onwards had appeared to lift some children out of poverty [5] ; they hadn’t become better off financially, the change was due to an average decline in income. This appears central to the matter at hand – relative poverty, as a percentage of median income, has been represented as a moving goalpost, or a cat chasing its own tail [6]. 

To describe it in this way is to misunderstand or misrepresent the difference between the mean and the median. Counterintuitive results, whilst not ideal, do not necessarily represent a sound reason for abandoning measures of relative household income as indicators of child poverty.

The recent consultation proposes a multi-dimensional measure of poverty that could risk burying relative (and absolute) low income under layers of complexity and data about related but largely separate factors and characteristics. The proposed components are:

  • Income and material deprivation
  • Worklessness
  • Unmanageable debt
  • Poor housing
  • Parental skill level
  • Access to quality education
  • Family stability
  • Parental health

Whilst there is a case to be made for some or all of the above forming part of a measure of childhood disadvantage, there are potential problems – not least that some could confuse cause with effect.

This is particularly so in Dimension 8: Parental Health. Whilst the title of the proposed measure is innocuous enough, the definition of health contained in the consultation appears to extend little beyond (undefined) disability, mental ill health and drug and / or alcohol dependency, the last meriting an individual consultation question.

This is concerning as it risks conflating households in poverty and people with drug or alcohol dependency, despite a paucity of evidence as to the direction of any causal relationship. The prominence given to drugs and alcohol increased when the Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith MP, introduced Public Views on Child Poverty [7] in a high profile speech. This research – based on a public opinion survey – suggested that respondents thought that drug or alcohol dependency was more important than income in deciding whether a child was growing up in poverty.

Drug dependency is a serious issue for those affected, but it is potentially a factor for a minority of children in poverty  – in 2003, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs estimated that up to 350,000 children in the UK were growing up with one or both parents drug dependent, compared to a total number of children in poverty at that time of almost 3,000,000 (in the UK) [8].

For alcohol use, there is additional complexity, with patterns of alcohol use and dependency diverging from drug dependency at different points on the income scale according to a range of factors, not least gender – for example, high-income women are more at risk from dangerous levels of consumption than those on low-incomes.

As the consultation states, it is entirely correct that the final measure chosen should be accepted by the public as a meaningful representation of child poverty, but government should proceed with caution, do everything possible to ensure that policy is grounded in evidence , and avoid the risk of reinforcing stigma.

You can read the consultation response here.

You can find a recent map of child poverty using the measures contained in the Child Poverty Act 2010 here.

Paul Anders, Senior Policy Officer, email:

1 comment:

  1. Peter Simonson6 March 2013 at 09:18

    The recent changes to housing benefit and council tax benefit for those on JSA etc will only serve to increase the number of households with children in poverty. This isn't helped by recent remarks that welfare should be cut further in order to increase military spending.