Why Iain Duncan Smith is wrong on child poverty

Relegate the relative measure? Only if we want to pretend that poverty is something else altogether.

When is child poverty not child poverty? When it is measured using the relative poverty indicator if Iain Duncan Smith is to be believed today.

We use a range of different measures to assess poverty in the UK, but the one that we pay the most attention to, and that most often captures the headlines, is the relative poverty measure.

This indicator sets the poverty line for the UK at 60 per cent of the median household income (which is then adjusted to take into account a household’s composition and size). In other words, if a child lives in a household with an income less than 60 per cent of this national average, they are considered to be living in poverty.

This measure generates what look, at first glance, like counter-intuitive outcomes under some conditions. In 2010/11, for example, we witnessed declining average incomes in the UK but at the same time, a reduction in the numbers living in poverty. How, some have asked, can there be less poverty in a situation when we are all worse off?

The answer, of course, is simple. To achieve decreases in relative poverty in a period of declining median incomes such as now we have to protect the incomes of those at the bottom more robustly than those elsewhere in the distribution. It’s the right thing to do because children in these households are most vulnerable to further falls in income.

And this is exactly what the last government did. For example, as late as 2010 Labour introduced a disregard for child benefit in housing benefit and council tax benefit calculations. As a result, low income families were able to keep the whole of their child benefit payment, rather than watching it be offset against other forms of assistance.

In contrast, the coalition is cutting support for families left, right and centre. The value of working tax credit, child tax credit, child benefit and housing benefit have all been eroded in the last two years, with many more cuts to come. It is no surprise, then, that the Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that child poverty will begin to rise again from 2012/13.

Here, perhaps, lies the reason why Duncan Smith objects so vigorously to the relative poverty measure. As a minister expected to preside over the period when the thirteen-year downward trend in child poverty is predicted to turn back in the opposite direction, it may be no surprise that he is trying to change the yardstick against which the coalition will be measured.

No single indicator is perfect: all have strengths and weaknesses. But the great advantage of the relative measure is that it recognises that poverty goes far beyond existential basics, and instead is a question of being able to participate in the society within which we are situated. If children cannot enjoy the products, services and experiences which are the norm today, we should regard them as living in poverty.

That said, we all recognise the relative poverty measure does not capture all aspects of poverty and that other indicators provide useful information that can be read alongside. This is why the Child Poverty Act (CPA) 2010 requires the government track progress against three other key indicators: persistent poverty, material deprivation and absolute poverty. It is also why we concern ourselves with many other measures of child wellbeing in the UK. 

But the CPA goes further. Not only does it require us to measure progress against indicators other than relative poverty, it also demands that the government develop a child poverty strategy that addresses a host of ‘drivers’ beyond financial support. So rather than skew policy priorities towards welfare payments as suggested, the CPA actively requires government to consider parental employment, parenting skills, physical and mental health, education, childcare, social services, housing and social inclusion as part of its programme of action to address child poverty.

To claim, then, that the relative measure doesn’t tell us anything about the lived experience of poverty is nonsense.  And to suggest it is driving the wrong kind of policy to the exclusion of other areas is a misunderstanding of the CPA and the requirements on the strategy for which Duncan Smith is responsible.

Let’s supplement the measure by all means. Let’s explore the interesting relationships between income poverty and a range of other indicators. But relegate the relative measure? Only if we want to pretend that poverty is something else altogether.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives for a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lindsay Judge is senior policy and research officer for the Child Poverty Action Group.

Show Hide image

For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood