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24 June 2015

David Cameron’s attempts to move the goalposts on poverty are a disaster – but don’t take my word for it

You can't define away poverty - and David Cameron himself has admitted that. 

By Alison Garnham

Ben Jennings/Child Poverty Action Group

The failure of the Government’s child poverty approach must not be compounded by moving the goalposts. 

Tomorrow morning sees the publication of what are likely to be grim child poverty figures for 2013-14. IFS projections suggest child poverty rose by 300,000 in that year.

But even if the figures are significantly better than expected, it’s clear the government is nowhere near meeting its child poverty targets. It is only a year since Iain Duncan Smith said he was on track to end child poverty by 2020 and it was only in March that the Chancellor claimed child poverty has fallen since 2010. 

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It’s in this context that we should view the speculation that tomorrow the government will respond to the rising child poverty figures by counting something else instead.  It is reported ministers will look to replace the relative income measure with indicators on worklessness, family breakdown, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency. Here are five reasons why we should retain the current income measures on child poverty.


  • The poverty measures we use in the UK are common-sense measures:  everyone recognises that poverty is first and foremost about a lack of money. Worklessness, family breakdown, drug and alcohol addiction may increase the risk of poverty, and problem debt may be a consequence of poverty, but they are not the same as poverty.  
  • The four separate measures of child poverty encoded in the Child Poverty Act 2010 (relative poverty, absolute poverty, material deprivation and persistent poverty) are national statistics and the standard measures used internationally (OECD, EU).
  • The relative poverty measure represents a long-standing consensus about the meaning of poverty in a wealthy country i.e. that poverty is not just about the basics (food, shelter etc) but also about having enough money to participate in society.
  • The relative measure tells us how many children live at an unacceptable distance from the mainstream – it’s the best metric we have for ‘we’re all in it together’. When the living standards of the mainstream drop, but we do the right thing and protect the incomes of those at the bottom, then relative child poverty will drop. When average household incomes go up, but those at the bottom don’t share in these gains, child poverty will go up. That may seem counter-intuitive but what the measure tells us is whether we are doing right or wrong by the most vulnerable in society.
  • But we also put the information from the relative measure together with that from other measures: absolute poverty (which tells us about the erosion of living standards for low income families over time); material deprivation (which tells us how low income translates into reality through a lack of goods and opportunities); and persistent poverty (which tells us how many children live in poverty over a long period of time).


However, perhaps the best reason was articulated in the Scarman Lecture in 2006:

Even if we are not destitute, we still experience poverty if we cannot afford things that society regards as essential. The fact that we do not suffer the conditions of a hundred years ago is irrelevant.

In the nineteenth century Lord Macaulay pointed out that the poor of his day lived lives of far greater material prosperity than the greatest noblemen of the Tudor period. But as Dickens observed, the poor of those days were still poor. Fifty years from today, people will be considered poor if they don’t have something which hasn’t even been invented yet. So poverty is relative – and those who pretend otherwise are wrong.”

Who gave that lecture? One David Cameron.


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