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.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.