The government is about to try and change the way poverty is measured. Again!

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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11 Responses to “The government is about to try and change the way poverty is measured. Again!”

  1. stevep

    They are changing it because poverty is about to rise again. Big time. Due to their measures. Fiddling the figures while Rome burns.

  2. RippedOffBriton

    The Tories have form changing definitions:
    1) In 2013 they decided to change the definition of ‘disabled’. Prior to the reforms one was eligible for transport related benefits if one could not walk more than 50 metres at a time. By changing the rule to not being able to walk more than 20 metres, as if by miracle thousands of people’s “feet and ankles became strong” and they were sent out to walk unaided!

    2) In 2014 they changed the definition of ‘saving’ . With no more money in our pockets we will have become richer. The Telegraph reported this as follows:
    “The ONS will also count future pension rights as if they were present income. With Britain boasting a large funded defined-benefit pension scheme, the move will raise measured household incomes and the savings ratio. ”

    3) In 2013 They changed the definition of ‘fuel poverty’:
    “The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has changed the way it defines fuel poverty – seemingly lifting two million households out of it in the process. ”

  3. Godfrey Paul

    It is about time that the government addressed the problem of this rediculous definition of poverty.

  4. swat

    A lot of the people the Authorities think as living in poverty, when asked, would not consider themselves as being in poverty. Again its an example of ‘do-gooders’ thinking they know best..

  5. Ulysses Jefferson

    Out of curiosity, maybe there should be – if there ain’t already – a similar method to calculate various levels of Prosperity. Say 160% of the Median

  6. Torybushhug

    600,000 poor migrants arriving annually was always going to push up the poverty number. Also they have a much higher rate of becoming self employed and self employed earnings always appear artificially low for a host of reasons, but one of which is that you can pay your spouse halve your income and call them you book keeper, administrator.

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  8. Mukkinese

    “Everythings fine, it’s that Johnny Foreigner who is messing things up.”

    Foreign or not, if a job is worth doing it is worth paying a living wage to do…

  9. Mukkinese

    Or an example of educated people caring for kids who have all their life chances severely restricted by the obvious imbalance in income inequality. Poverty does not simply mean living in a cardboard box and digging food out of rubbish heaps, it also means poverty of opportunity…

  10. Mukkinese

    And so we see in the comments the Tory apologists, for unfettered greed, lining up to declare that British people do not know what poverty is, despite a Million British citisens having to beg for food last year and more this year, despite the record number of evictions last year and another record to be set this year, despite the growing personal debt and rent arrears among the poor.

    A typical case of “I’m alright Jack, sod the rest of em'”…

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