Why change the measure if it is set to show falling poverty?
While the official poverty statistics published today do not show as big an increase as was widely predicted by experts, they still paint a disturbing picture of the state of poverty in Britain.
On one measure (before housing costs) the child poverty figures are flat. After allowing for housing costs, 28 per cent of children were in poverty in 2013, a slight rise over the earlier year.
Britain has a poor record on poverty. Levels of child poverty are much higher than the average of other rich countries, and close to double the rate of the late 1970s.
The impact of widespread poverty is all too visible – rising numbers running out of money on a regular basis, growing indebtedness, and a soaring dependence on charitable help with food, clothes and toys.
Comparing actual living standards, the proportion of the population falling below a publicly defined minimum acceptable living standard (shown in the graph) has doubled since 1983.
The findings of the Poverty and Social Exclusion project show that more households lack a range of publicly defined basic necessities today than in the late 1990s.
More households live in a damp home compared with 1999, while three times as many cannot afford to heat their home adequately. The number who skimp on meals is at a 30 year high.
Deprivation poverty, 1983 to 2012
(click to enlarge)
It now seems that ministers are planning to resuscitate their earlier, failed attempt to redefine the way poverty is measured.
The coalition government tried, unsuccessfully, to invent a new measure based on a narrow range of causes, from family breakdown and addiction to housing problems and indebtedness, rather than the underlying structural causes of poverty.
All these may be associated with child poverty but they are not measures of poverty – rich families experience some of these as well!
Although the attempt was ditched – ministers and civil servants could not agree on how to make it work – the new government is hinting strongly that it is planning a similar attempt at redefinition.
This looks like little more than an attempt to move the goalposts in a way that will massage the poverty figures downwards, an implicit recognition that poverty is set to rise. Why change the measure if it is set to show falling poverty?
Most experts predict that the poverty figures are now set on an upward course, driven by the continuing spread of low pay and job insecurity, the hollowing out of jobs that offer real prospects and the ongoing squeeze on working age benefits.
In his Runcorn speech on Monday, David Cameron said it would be better to create well-paid jobs than top up low pay. A loud yes to that.
But while the government has plans to cut tax credits, there are none to tackle Britain’s growing wages crisis and the continuing spread of low pay and job insecurity.
This is a case of cart before horse. We need to start with a real strategy to tackle low wages, such as lifting the national minimum wage, spreading the living wage and boosting long- term productivity.
Without it, another round of cuts to working benefits – expected in the budget as part of the planned £12bn social security cuts – will simply cut the safety net still further, a recipe for both rising workforce poverty and a lower incentive to work.
Stewart Lansley is the author (with Joanna Mack) of Breadline Britain: The Rise of Mass Poverty, Oneworld, 2015, and of The Cost of Inequality, Why economic equality is essential for recovery, 2012
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