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Why the left and the right are getting it wrong on poverty

Demos's new research shows that poverty can be both an economic and social phenomenon.

Two young boys play football in a run down street in the Govan area of Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

When the government announced that it was again reviewing how it measured child poverty, some on the left decried the move as "moving the goalposts". Iain Duncan Smith didn’t help matters by launching the consultation with a speech which seemed to suggest he had already made up his mind. The focus on family breakdown, in particular, raised hackles – in essence, poverty would be measured by how long a child had been raised in a two-parent family. While single parenthood can mean a lower income, to suggest a child should be deemed in poverty on this basis alone betrays a particular ideological outlook.

This is a shame, because it has meant that many have dismissed the consultation out of hand, as yet another cynical attempt by government to move the focus of the poverty strategy away from tackling deprivation and towards stigmatising single parents and troubled families. But the fact is, a more holistic measure of poverty – which takes causal factors and symptoms into account – will give us a better understanding of poverty, and help politicians tackle it more effectively.

Both the government and the opposition risk falling down an ideological rabbit-hole now that the definition of poverty is back on the agenda. On the right, the Victorian tendency to explain poverty as a social problem, experienced by troubled families, and brought on by their own failings and weaknesses, will no doubt lead to a critically limited range of policy responses. But this will be no more limited than the response from the left, whose fixed position that low income is the central feature of poverty has in the past led to a one-dimensional, technocratic approach – memorably described as "poverty plus a pound", where poverty is "solved" by redistributing until enough people are over the invisible poverty line.

Our research published today seeks to take the politics out of poverty and use evidence to point to the best policy response. By applying 20 separate indicators associated with poverty to the population below the poverty line, we keep income central to our understanding – but also recognise that the lived experience of poverty is never just about one’s bank balance, but a complex interaction of social issues, spanning one’s social networks, health, education, and housing.

The result is 15 distinct types of poverty across three cohorts – households with children, those without, and pensioners. Each type of poverty is made up of a unique combination of the different indicators, creating a sense of the "lived experience" of each type.

What was clear was that while some of the poverty types were experiencing the kind of poverty the government has set out to solve – unemployment, debt, single parenthood and poor health – many were not. The most prevalent type of child poverty (applying to about a third of families) was defined by long work histories in poorly paid jobs or recent redundancy from well paid jobs, a strong work ethic, home ownership and good education.

Our research disproves the assumptions held by those on both ends of the political spectrum – and concludes that poverty can be both an economic and social phenomenon, depending on the household in question. Perhaps this smacks of sitting on the fence – an excuse to do nothing. But this is far from the case. In fact, the findings represent a highly inconvenient truth. The truth is that there is no magic bullet to ending poverty – neither a crusade against troubled families, nor a predistribution and living wage strategy will be effective in isolation.

An effective poverty strategy will not, in fact, serve either party’s particular ideological standpoint. Indeed, our findings suggest there is no such thing as an effective poverty strategy, but that each type requires its own strategy, each one relying on a coordinated response from different combinations of agencies – good, old-fashioned joined-up government.

Those on the front-line working with poor families might be wondering what’s new here. They already know that a poorly skilled young mother struggling to put food on the table needs different help to a recently redundant, middle aged divorcee coping with a vastly reduced income.

But the Demos work has, for the first time, articulated and quantified this difference – and in so doing, shows exactly where existing narrower approaches are falling short. With the government’s consultation, we have an unprecedented opportunity to harness the evidence to guide our policy response – but politicians on both sides must first learn that a sincere attempt to tackle poverty is an issue beyond politics.

Claudia Wood is deputy director of Demos