Poverty has many faces
by Jo Salter
The Government faces criticism today as the most recent poverty figures show that the targets for reducing child poverty were not met in 2010/11.
Ian Duncan Smith this morning labelled this a failure of the relative income measure of poverty – highlighting the perversity of this getting smaller when, in tough economic times like this for example, the whole country gets poorer. He attacked “poverty plus a pound” and announced that the Government will hold and autumn consultation on replacing this with a new measure, incorporating multiple elements of disadvantage rather than focusing exclusively on income.
This is a bold move. In face of the inevitable accusations of “shifting the goalposts” on child poverty, it is absolutely the right thing to do. The relative income measure has not failed – but it is only one piece of the puzzle, and is wholly inadequate for either describing or explaining poverty.
Despite significant reductions in child poverty between 1996/7 and 2009/10 (child poverty fell from 27 per cent to 20 per cent - a fall of just over a quarter), and improvements on a range of associated measures of child wellbeing, such as educational attainment, mental health and number of children living in homeless families, any meaningful sense of how the lives of people lifted out of income poverty have changed over this period is missing. This black hole of public and political understanding could explain the downward trend in support for government spending on welfare, and lack of empathy towards people living in poverty.
This Government now stands at a crossroads in the fight against poverty; moving forward will require a leap of imagination, which brings poverty to life – and points towards new, more creative ways of tackling its different manifestations, as opposed to a “one-sizes-fits-all” solution that focuses on raising incomes, primarily through work.
The current relative income measure allows us to hold government to account over time. This 60 per cent of median income threshold is an established measure that is associated with a lower quality of life, but it should be treated as a proxy for poverty: a single dimension of an experience that is, in reality, much more complex and multidimensional and requires more complex and multidimensional solutions.
Income is one part of a whole web of interconnected factors in a person’s life – their health, level of education, the quality of life that they can afford, and the things that they value. These things are not the same for all people on a low income. Your experience of poverty will be very different if you are a working parent, suffering from stress and depression, who is skipping meals so that your children can eat three meals a day, to if you are a single mum living with your parents, who cannot fit work around childcare responsibilities and cannot afford to move out because you have no savings.
Even using just three or four variables, it becomes obvious that the same type of ways to tackle poverty will not be appropriate in each of these different situations – you cannot say “go back to work” to people who are already in work, or who are being prevented from finding work by circumstances beyond their control. In the past, individual services have targeted particular problems in isolation – Jobcentre Plus helps people back into work, GPs deal with heath issues, children’s centres provide access to affordable childcare. A change in measurement at national and local level could act as the catalyst for these disparate services to join forces to fight on a common front.
This is exactly what ongoing Demos and NatCen research on measuring multidimensional poverty is attempting to do. Using a list of around 20 dimensions of poverty (including income, material deprivation, housing, health, education, employment and neighbourhood), we have analysed how these indicators overlap at household level to create a typology of modern poverty, and explore policy responses to these types. In this way, we hope to build a measure of poverty that is both descriptive and practical.
This “shifting of the goalposts” is actually a real opportunity for government to move towards a measurement that embraces poverty in all its complexity – as this is how it must be tackled.