Thursday, 14 February 2013

Child Poverty

When is a family’s life impaired by living in poverty? How do we know? What does it look like? How do we measure it? What rights do poor people have to meet the material needs that others take for granted? Why does child poverty in the UK matter? Is it because of the future financial and social costs to society? Or is it the lived experience of poverty during childhood? As austerity bites and attitudes (in the media) towards the poor and the vulnerable harden, whose responsibility is it to ensure that everyone, irrespective of wealth, is treated with dignity and respect?

These are among the questions not considered in the UK Conservative-led coalition government’s consultation on a new measure of child poverty.

Before considering the proposed new measure of child poverty, let's look at the existing one. The one currently used was reached through lengthy consultation with skilled and knowledgeable people. It measures people's income: (1) in relation to the income spectrum across the UK (relative poverty); (2) in relation to a fixed point in time (absolute poverty); and (3) it measures the affordability and ownership of material items, such as two pairs of all-weather shoes and a winter coat (material deprivation).  The items that make up the list of material deprivation were deemed necessary by a cross-section of ordinary people (the consensual method).  This is the one that current and future governments are obligated to reduce under the Child Poverty Act (2010). So why change it?

Well, the government doesn't like it for one - it has drawn criticism from Iain Duncan Smith for being simplistic. Yes, using the relative poverty line alone, those who are just above the poverty line may face similar hardships as those just below the poverty line, so it is not sensitive to this aspect. Yet, it is more than just a relative poverty line. It is multidimensional (as set out above), objective, well-defined, comparable, and above all, measurable. It is not perfect but it is widely used across institutions such as the UN, OECD and the EU, which allows comparability.

The proposals put forward by the government for a new measure of poverty cover eight dimensions: income and material deprivation; worklessness; unmanageable debt; poor housing; parental skill level; access to quality education; family stability; and parental health (including young carers, drug and alcohol dependency, and mental health issues). The government believes that these denote a multidimensional measure of poverty. Let's leave aside the fact that income and material deprivation already make a multidimensional measure of poverty, let's focus instead on the suggested new dimensions. There are three issues that strike me about them.

The first is how little they discriminate among people in the population. Who hasn't experienced a separation or remarriage in the family? Who hasn't experienced ill-health? Who is debt free? These questions don't even take us past the Royal family.

The second is that these are not measures of child poverty, but consequences, and sometimes causes, of poverty. Causes and consequences of poverty can be mutually reinforcing, such as ill-health leading to poverty and poverty leading to ill-health. Some of these dimensions are relatively ordinary life experiences that, if handled sensitively and without conflict, leave no adverse impact on children.

The third is the lack of definition. How many of these circumstances, in what order, at what time period, for how long, count as poverty? Forever? Similarly, do all conditions have to be present, in which case, the government may have eradicated child poverty overnight? Or do only a few dimensions have to be present, in which case, the majority of the population may be living with child poverty?

The consultation itself has been called a ‘sham' as the government maintains that the measure will be implemented, it's the how that is being consulted upon. The proposed new measure itself has attracted accusations that the government is trying to change the goalposts to distract from the fact that they may fail to reduce child poverty as demanded by the Child Poverty Act. These criticisms may or may not be valid; however, what is clear is that this imminent measure of poverty does not bear witness to the research evidence so carefully collected over many years. This proposed new measure is the result of this government's particular ideology and methodological confusion, one that muddles up measures of poverty with its causes and consequences, and one that blames the behaviour and circumstances of poor people for being in poverty.

Morag C Treanor 

Read CRFR's response to the consultation, prepared by Morag online:

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