Why poverty really is relative

Frank Field is wrong to claim that we need to change our definition of poverty.

The Labour MP Frank Field, who is leading a government-commissioned independent review of poverty, has said that he will examine how poverty is measured. This matters because measuring child poverty is crucial to understanding and tackling it.

There are a few myths that need dispelling about the targets in the Child Poverty Act:

1. The government target is a relative poverty target that takes no account of other factors. Wrong. The Child Poverty Act contains four targets: relative low income, absolute low income, persistent low income and material deprivation. This basket of measures picks up a range of factors crucial to ensuring that children's lives and well-being are improved.

2. The relative low income target is mathematically impossible to meet. Wrong. Unfortunately, in an article for the Telegraph, Frank Field, the former head of the Child Poverty Action Group, confused the mean and the median. Relative low income is set at 60 per cent of median income. Yes, this creates a moving target when incomes rise (and sometimes fall). But it is still mathematically possible for every household to be moved from below 60 per cent of the median to above without the median moving: if every household below 60 per cent moved to the range between 60 per cent and 100 per cent, then the median would not move at all. It is only when incomes increase above 100 per cent that the median shifts.

3. No developed world country has achieved the relative low income target. Wrong. Finland, Denmark and Sweden are all, or have recently been, in a situation of less than 10 per cent of households with children below the 60 per cent median income -- the standard set by the Child Poverty Act for 2020.

4. The 60 per cent median income line is arbitrary. Wrong. This is the accepted international measure used in the OECD and the EU. In fact, the previous government gave long consideration to where to set the line, including consulting with expert organisations. The 60 per cent line was chosen because, for incomes at this level, a clear correlation with material deprivation has emerged. As there are already clear signs of correlation with material deprivation at 70 per cent of median income, it could be argued that a more ambitious anti-poverty strategy would have defined poverty at income below 70 per cent of median earnings.

5. Relative poverty is not poverty. Wrong. No child should be left behind. A paper last year from the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, by Peter Saunders, argued that the dictionary definition of "poverty" does not include relative poverty. The paper even quoted the Oxford English Dictionary to try to prove that poverty really means destitution only. Curiously, the quotation omitted the line "relative lack of money or material possessions". Go check -- it's there!

6. The relative poverty target can only be met by raising benefits to unaffordable levels. Wrong. Many people on benefits do not have sufficient incomes and raising benefits must be a part of the long-term strategy. However, six out of ten children below the poverty line are in homes where a parent has a job. This is not just about redistribution to benefit claimants; it is about making work pay and ensuring public services help improve the life chances of children.

7. It is poverty of ambition that is the problem. Half wrong. Children who grow up below the poverty line start out with ambitions very similar to wealthy children. It is only when they get older that their ambitions are scaled back. Certainly their ambition needs to be nurtured, but it is hard when the real problem is lack of opportunity because of socio-economic disadvantage. These kids need more than a pep talk, they need equal opportunity.

Returning to dodgy definitions of poverty, the idea that relative poverty is not "real" poverty is often made by a vocal minority. But arguing over the correct definition of a word is beside the point. It is well understood by anti-poverty campaigners that the public more readily associates "poverty" with the horrific images on TV of destitution in the developing world. What matters most is another "p" word: problem.

Does the public see high levels of economic inequality in the UK as a problem? Yes. Is the public concerned at the high social and economic costs resulting from high levels of economic inequality? Yes. Does the public believe that politicians should do something about the fact that the poorest UK children are likely to live ten years less than the wealthiest? Are twice as likely to die in infancy? Twice as likely to acquire a disability during life? Much more likely to leave school with low skills and qualifications? Yes, yes, yes and yes!

Many members of the public may associate "poverty" with the situation of destitute children in the developing world rather than with the UK. But that doesn't mean they've stopped believing in tackling problems resulting from social and economic inequalities in our own country. The public cares. People don't want to live in a rat-race society of grotesque inequality. They want a fair resolution to inequality that produces a better quality of life for all.

The confused objections to the current measures and targets are at best worrying. At worst, by diluting how we measure child poverty and thereby making the government less accountable for tackling it, these calls are dangerous and could have a real impact on the childhood and the life chances of youngsters living in poverty.

That really would be thinking the unthinkable.

Imran Hussain is head of policy at the Child Poverty Action Group.

Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out".

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.