The government’s redefinition will magically reduce child poverty

Almost two out of three in Britain's poor live in working households - thanks to the changes they'll be left out of poverty statistics


During the coalition years, ministers tried in vain to change the ground rules for measuring poverty. Now, with a working majority, the new Conservative government is seizing its chance.

The Child Poverty Act, passed with all-party support in the dying days of the Brown government, is to be repealed, its targets dropped and the official measure of poverty redefined.

The Act’s targets may have been ambitious, but it was still a significant milestone in the history of post-war policy on poverty. It signalled an apparent political consensus on the poverty question – that poverty was relative and was much too high.

It was also an unambiguous statement of the social obligation to tackle poverty.

That consensus has long been over. Within weeks of coming to office in 2010, coalition ministers started to distance themselves from the principles defined in the Act.

Now the legally enshrined social commitment is to be cast aside, with profound consequences for official policy on poverty and the life chances of the poor.

Conservative ministers have long railed against the relative measure central to the Act – the 60 per cent of the median target. This measure is not perfect, but because of this, it is backed up by three other measures enshrined in the Act.

It also the measure used by nearly all rich nations, as well as international bodies like UNICEF, the EU and the OECD.

In place of the targets in the Act (though the official figures –  Households Below Average Incomes – are at least for now, still to be published, even if they weren’t independent researchers would replicate them) the government is to adopt new measures based around worklessness.

These are to include educational attainment for disadvantaged compared with all children and the proportion of children in workless households. Yet close to two out of three of Britain’s poor live in working households. If this group was simply redefined away, the poverty count would fall sharply.

It is, of course, right to emphasise the importance of life chances and social mobility, which are appallingly low in the UK, but the government’s wider economic and social policies will simply tighten the cap preventing families from escaping poverty.

Central to the government’s aim is to drop income from poverty measurement.

Despite the fact that poverty is driven by a lack of material resources, and the evidence that even small boosts to low incomes make a big difference, ministers like to claim that giving the poor more money is not the way to fight poverty, an approach the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has constantly dismissed as ‘poverty plus a pound’.

The government is set, instead, on redefining the causes of poverty away from broadly societal and economic explanations – such as the spread of  low wages and job insecurity to rising living costs, especially rents  – to individual ones, such as family breakdown, bad parenting and drug addiction.

This matches the repeated claims that poverty is down to the individual – a ‘lifestyle choice`. All these circumstances can contribute to poverty – though they occur in rich as well as poor families – but account for only a tiny fraction of those in poverty.

Britain has a poor record on poverty, historically and globally. All experts predict that with today’s increasingly fragile labour market and further rounds of benefit cuts to come, poverty levels are set to rise until 2020.

Meanwhile the government is creating a political culture that is more anti-poor than anti-poverty. By changing the ground rules, the government may hope that the real record on poverty can be hidden, and accountability passed from state to the poor themselves.

Just as Mrs Thatcher instructed ministers and civil servants, in the 1980s, to drop the ‘poverty` word, the new plan seems to be simply to write large numbers of the poor out of the political script.

‘How many Tories does it take to change a light bulb?` ‘None – they just redefine the dark`.

Stewart Lansley is a visiting fellow at the University of Bristol and the author ( with Joanna Mack ) of Breadline Britain: The Rise of Mass Poverty, Oneworld, 2015.

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