As the DWP publishes its annual Households Below Average Income figures, coalition policies are cancelling out a decade’s progress in tackling child poverty.
Today, DWP publishes the latest round of its annual Households Below Average Income statistics, which yield the frequently-cited ‘headline’ figure for relative poverty in the UK (the measure being a household income below 60% of the median figure).
Although today’s figures are likely to show the median target of 1.7m as having been missed, if the Child Poverty Action Group’s predictions are correct, somewhere between 900,000 and one million children will nonetheless have been lifted out of poverty over the past decade – a fine achievement, of which Labour can be proud.
However, as we learned yesterday, the coalition is preparing to respond to today’s figures by simply moving the goalpoasts, with Iain Duncan Smith today announcing the publication of a green paper looking at non-income measures for poverty:
In a speech setting out his thinking, Duncan Smith will stress that he is not abolishing Labour’s child poverty target… But Conservative sources said the target could not be reached even if £19bn of extra income were poured into anti-poverty measures such as tax credits.
Promising to deliver ‘a better set of indicators’, Duncan Smith will say: “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.”
Duncan Smith will argue that the idea is simply to work with a broader range of poverty indicators, rather than actually rejecting an income-based measurement. Nonetheless, it is clear that he is deeply sceptical of the latter approach.
The Guardian suggests he will frame part of his argument in terms of the ‘poverty plus a pound’ thesis:
“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. Yet moving someone from one pound below the poverty line to one pound above it might be enough to hit a target.”
Likewise David Cameron.
• IDS blames deficit on child poverty target 14 Jun 2012
• Tackling child poverty: the story so far 13 Jun 2012
• Child poverty: Absolute and relative 30 May 2012
“I think there is a real problem with the way we measure child poverty in this country. Because it’s done on relative poverty, if you increase the pension, that means more children are in poverty. I think that’s illogical.
“It’s the right thing to do to increase the pension. It does not make any child in our country poorer, because you are giving pensioners more money at a time when they need it. I think what we have got to start doing is measuring how we help children out of poverty and keep them out of poverty.”
Remarks such as these from Cameron, Duncan Smith and others betray an enduring ignorance about the rationale for income-based measures for poverty, a willingness to dramatically oversimplify the way in which we’ve attacked child poverty for the last decade, and a worrying complacency about the outcomes achieved.
‘60% of median household income is an arbitrary poverty line.’
No, it isn’t. It’s an internationally recognised measure, used, amongst others, by the EU and OECD.
‘Relative poverty is impossible to eliminate.’
As per Cameron’s mistake above. Frank Field has got this one wrong too: the error stems from confusing the mean (average) and median (mid-point). As incomes fluctuate, so relative measures do constitute moving targets.
Nonetheless, as Imran Hussain points out: “It is still mathematically possible for every household to be moved from below 60 per cent of the median to above without the median moving: if every household below 60 per cent moved to the range between 60 per cent and 100 per cent, then the median would not move at all.”
‘Relative poverty is not real poverty.’
Yes, it is. Income distribution creates social, cultural and behavioural norms: a relative measure of poverty is essential because it tracks exclusion from these norms and thus provides a more nuanced appreciation of poverty (as opposed to simply providing feedback on the number of people deprived of existential basics such as food and shelter).
‘The UK only measures relative income poverty.’
No, it doesn’t. Iain Duncan Smith’s error is to overlook the wide range of non-income based poverty measures the UK already has in place: by tracking educational, health, behavioural and familial outcomes, amongst others, we arrive at a more fulsome understanding of what poverty means in practice.
‘We have achieved nothing over the last decade.’
As above: while it seems unlikely that we’ll have met the 1.7 million interim target, to argue that lifting nearly a million children out of poverty over the course of a decade is insignificant is transparently ridiculous.
‘Progress over the last decade was illusory – poverty plus a pound.’
Another IDS trope, decisively disproved by research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies: their analysis suggests we would have seen significant reductions in child poverty over the last decade with the relative income poverty line set anywhere between 43% and 100% of median household income.
‘We haven’t looked at the real causes of poverty.’
As CPAG and Left Foot Forward argued yesterday, this grossly misrepresents Labour’s strategy over the past decade: it was not simply about boosting lower incomes through an expansion of the benefits system, but rather involved a wide range of investment in services such as Sure Start, the Decent Homes Initiative and National Childcare Strategy.