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.

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Celebrate Labour's electoral success - but don't forget the working class

The shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face. 

In the moment when the exit poll was released on 8 June, after seven weeks of slogging up and down the streets of Britain, dealing with scepticism, doubt and sometimes downright hostility, we felt a combination of relief, optimism, even euphoria.
 
This election broke wide open some assumptions that have constrained us on the left for too long; that the young won’t vote, that any one individual or political party is “unelectable”, that perceptions of both individuals, parties and even policies cannot change suddenly and dramatically. It reminded us that courage, ambition and hope are what’s needed and what have been missing from our politics, too often, for too long.
 
We have learnt to tread carefully and wear our values lightly. But in recent weeks we have remembered that our convictions can, as Jonathan Freedland once wrote, “bring hope flickering back to life” and meet the growing appetite for a politics that doesn’t simply rail against what is but aspires to build a world that is better.
 
In this election at least, it seems the final, anticipated fracture of Labour from its working-class base after Brexit did not materialise. Shortly before the snap election was called I wrote that while Brexit appeared to be Labour’s greatest weakness, it could just be our biggest strength, because: “consider what remain voting Tottenham and leave voting Wigan have in common: Labour… We will succeed if we seek the common ground shared by the decent, sensible majority, and more importantly, so will Britain.”
 
But consider this too. The Tories ran a terrible campaign. It was, without any doubt,the most inept, counter-productive campaign I’ve ever seen in British politics. The day their manifesto hit the headlines, even in our toughest neighbourhoods, we could feel change in the air. Arrogance is never rewarded by the British people and Theresa May has paid a price for it. Yet, despite a Tory manifesto that was a full, square attack on older people, the majority of over 65s still came out for the Tories.
 
And despite the growing relevance of freedom, internationalism and tolerance in an era characterised by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Liberal Democrats managed to become bystanders in the political debate. They stood on a platform that aimed to capture the support of those remain voters for whom Brexit is the major question, but neglected the rest. And they quite spectacularly failed to foresee that those who were intensely angered by May’s conversion to a little England, hard Brexit stance would vote tactically against the Tories. Over those seven weeks, they all but disappeared as a political force.
 
As Bob Dylan once said, "the times, they are a-changin" – and they will change again. The recent past has moved at extraordinary speed. The Brexit Referendum, the rise and retreat of nationalism, the election of Trump and his crushing unpopularity just a few months later, the reversal in fortunes for May and Jeremy Corbyn, the astonishing phenomenon of Emmanuel Macron and pro-European centrism, and the dramatic rise and sudden collapse of Ukip. Politics, as John Harris wrote last week, is now more fluid than ever. So now is the time, for hope yes, and for conviction too, but not for jubilation. We need some serious thinking. 
 
We should be cautious to rush to judgment. It is only two weeks since the exit poll sent shockwaves across the country. There is no comprehensive explanation for the multitude of motivations that delivered this election result and will not be for some time. But there are some early indictors that must make us think. 
 
After seven years of austerity, as John Curtice observes, the Tories made some of their biggest gains in some of the poorest areas of Britain. It is something I felt in all of the eight constituencies I campaigned in during the election. While the Labour vote rose significantly in towns like Wigan, so too did the Tory vote, despite little or no campaigning activity on the ground. As Rob Ford puts it, “Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich. The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales… Britain’s class politics has been turned completely upside down in 2017”.
 
To acknowledge the growing, longstanding scepticism of many working-class men, and women, towards Labour in towns across England is not to take away from the hard work and drive of the activists, advisers and politicians that helped to fuel such a dramatic turnaround for Labour during the short campaign. To have won considerable gains in wealthier suburbs is no small achievement. 
 
But if the future of Labour lies in a coalition between middle-class young professionals and the working class, what is the glue that binds? While there is shared agreement about investment in public services, how are those interests to be squared on areas like national security and immigration? I believe it can and must be done, but – as I said to conference when I was first elected seven years ago - it will demand that we begin with the difficult questions, not the easy ones.  
 
Just a few days before the election, statistics were released that pointed to a collapse in trade union membership. What does the decline of an organised Labour movement mean for who we are and what we can achieve? These are not new questions. They were posed by Eric Hobsbawm in his brilliant lecture, "The Forward March of Labour Halted" in 1979 - a challenge laid down in the year I was born. Now, 37 years on, we are no further down the road to answering it. 
 
The most dramatic finding from this election was the support Corbyn’s Labour party appears to have won from middle-class, young professionals. They said he couldn’t do it and quite stunningly it seems they were wrong. But a ComRes poll last week caught my eye – by a large margin those 30-44 year olds would favour a new centre-ground political party over the current political settlement. In an election where we returned strongly to two-party politics, it appears they moved to us. But what would a dynamic and renewed Liberal Democrat Party, or a British En Marche do to our support base?
 
After a hellish two years we have learnt in Labour, I hope, that unity matters. The public and private anger directed towards each other, whether the Labour leadership, the parliamentary Labour party or elected councillors, is desperately damaging and its (relative) absence in the campaign was important.
 
But unity is not the same as uniformity, and while two weeks ago I felt there was a real danger of historic fracture, now I believe the shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face, and must avoid. No one person, faction or party has ever had the monopoly on wisdom. The breadth of the Labour movement was and remains our greatest strength. 
 
Consider the Labour manifesto, which drew on every tradition across our movement and demanded that every part of the party had to compromise. Those broad traditions still matter and are still relevant because they hear and are attuned to different parts of Britain. Our country is changing and politics must catch up. The future will be negotiated, not imposed.
 
As we witness the age of "strong man" politics across the world, here in Britain our political culture has become angrier and more illiberal than at any time I can remember. The Brexit debate was characterised by rage, misinformation and a macho political culture that demanded that we abandon nuance and complexity, an understanding of one another and tolerance of different points of view.
 
But this is not where the future of Britain lies: it lies in pluralism. It lies in a politics that is nimbler, more fleet of foot, less constrained; a return to the great tradition of debate, evidence, experience and argument as a way to build broad coalitions and convince people; not shouting one another down, nor believing any of us are always right; an arena in which we listen as much as we speak; a political culture in which we are capable of forming alliances within and across party lines to achieve real, lasting change.
 
And ultimately that’s the prize: not just seek power but, to paraphrase a philosopher whose work inspired millions, in the end “the point is to change it”. We could sit tight in Labour and hope to see the current government fall apart. We might even inherit power, we could temporarily reverse some of the worst of the last seven years, but what then? If we have learnt anything from 13 years of Labour government it should be this: that to build lasting change is the hardest political task of all, and it requires now that we do not turn to the political culture, the tools or even the ideas of the past, but that we think hard about where the future of our movement and our country really lies. Now is not the time to sit back and celebrate. Now is the time to think.

 

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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