Yesterday on Significance Andrew McCulloch talked about problem families. Today’s big news topic is the related one of child poverty. A statement to Parliament about it is due today.
The statement, if not the problem, is about definitions. Last week we had rather an inconsequential piece about defining the length of the Great Wall of China. Its length, of course, doesn’t really matter very much no matter how you choose to define it. But the piece did try to point out that definitions matter. Definitions certainly matter in this one: the UK government wants to change the definition of ‘child poverty.’ The consequences are very real, and very important indeed, for about 2.3 million of the UK’s least well-off children. In 2010-11, 18% of our children lived in households classed as below the child poverty line.
Reducing child poverty in the UK has been a stated priority for the last (Labour) government and for the present (Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition) one. What makes a child poor? Absence of money in the family would seem a pretty obvious answer: not being able to afford decent food, clothing and housing. That is what the last government worked on: it defined child poverty as ‘children living in households with an income less than 60% of the median’. (Median income in the UK at present is £26,244 for those in full-time employment, which means the threshold income for a family with child poverty is £15,746.)
Curiously, this definition does not seem to take into account the number of children in the family. It might just, I suppose, be possible for a family with one child to somehow scrape by on £15,000 a year, but to raise two or three children adequately on that sum would surely be next door to impossible. But that is not what the present dispute is about.
Working on that definition, the Labour government had a policy to halve child poverty by 2010 (and to eradicate it by 2020). The Child Poverty Act 2010 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/9/contents spelled out very clearly, in statistical terms, exactly what that target was and how to verify whether or not it had been met. Here’s an extract from that act:
(1)The Secretary of State must,…not later than 30 June 2012, lay before Parliament a report on whether the 2010 target has been met.
(2)The 2010 target is that in the financial year beginning with 1 April 2010, 1.7 million children or fewer live in … households in the United Kingdom that fell within the relevant [low] income group...
(3)The report must be based on statistics that the Statistics Board has designated under section 12 of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (assessment) as National Statistics.
(4)Whether the target has been met in relation to the 2010 target year is to be determined by reference to the statistics.
The ‘best before 30th June’ statement is happening today, and it is expected that the present Minister is going to have to report that the target was not met. That Minister is (Conservative) Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. He wants to change the definition of child poverty. It is not just a matter of money, he says: "By this narrow measure, if you have a family who sit one pound below the poverty line, you can do a magical thing. Give them one pound more, say through increased benefit payments, and you can apparently change everything – you are said to have pulled them out of poverty.”
Moving someone from one pound below the poverty line to one pound above it might be enough to hit a target – but changes nothing in real life. "Take the example of a poor family where the parents are suffering from a drug addiction. Giving the parents extra money moves them over the line and out of 'poverty' on paper. Yet because much of the money will almost certainly go on drugs, the family still lives in poverty. Coming off drugs is a therefore a vital step for them getting out of poverty and staying there."
Giving more money to the family might make no difference at all to the poverty of the child. In his, and the government’s, view, drug addiction, homelessness and unemployment should be considered as well as income when defining child poverty.
He has promised to deliver "a better set of indicators"; a green paper is to be published looking at a range of new non-income indicators of poverty. "We remain committed to the targets set out in the Child Poverty Act, but it is increasingly clear that poverty is not about income alone." His critics suggest that by changing the definition he is also changing the target – to an easier one that will cost the government less money.
So which view - and which definition - is right? There probably is no ‘right’. A collection of both Labour and Conservative thinkers have expressed doubts about the old money-only target, saying it is a measure, not of poverty, but of inequality. If the richer part of the nation gets poorer (as in a recession) the median income falls and the government could get closer to reaching the 60%-of-median-income target even though absolute poverty can be on the rise. Indeed this may have happened already: the number of children living in poverty in the UK fell by 300,000 last year. This was a 2% drop - and was in part because the median income of the nation went down.
Frank Field, the former Labour welfare minister, has proposed a range of other life-chances indicators, such as school readiness and child birth weight.
On the other hand David Bull, executive director of UNICEF UK, says the Labour government’s money-focussed efforts did achieve good things: ‘Boosting income is the main thing. The UK has been doing quite well compared to other rich countries in the impact of the action the government has taken to address child poverty.’ Those actions did take, he says, 900,000 children out of poverty. ‘Income is the most important factor. We come third in the international league table in terms of the impact of government action. Unless we focus our policy in particular on the monetary aspect of child poverty during a period of cuts and recession the gains which have been gained will be at risk.’
So, should we take money alone or money as one part of many indicators, in our definition? Perhaps, either way, the bottom line was also given by David Bull: the UK still comes 22nd out of 29 countries of Europe in the number of its children who, by even an inadequate definition, are poor.