Poverty: A defining issue

What does ‘poverty’ even mean in the UK? An independent commission has come up with a new answer to this question. Here’s why their new poverty measure is a major opportunity to end the bickering about what poverty is, and instead focus on how to tackle it.

For almost a century, Save the Children has worked with the poorest children not just internationally, but here in the UK, because we see the particular damage that poverty does to a child’s life from their earliest years.

In the last couple of decades the issue of child poverty rocketed up the political agenda – child poverty fell, rapidly; and the main political parties competed on who’d do a better job of ending it. 2010 saw the Child Poverty Act passed – creating a legal target to stop child poverty. But, since then, poverty has risen, just as the political debate on it has descended into a slagging match.

Worse than failing to agree on how to tackle poverty, policy-makers and campaigners have ended up fighting over what poverty even is.

Ask around in Parliament and you’d be told that poverty is about inequality, or worklessness, social exclusion or limited life chances, family breakdown or ‘burning injustices’. But these all differ from the common sense understanding of what we mean by poverty. The gap between the rich and poor, educational disadvantage and improving employment levels are all valid political questions, with clear links to poverty – but they don’t get to the heart of what poverty is.

Even if you agree that poverty is fundamentally about not having enough money to live on, you might still argue about where the ‘poverty line’ is. This leaves a lot of room for politicians to pick which measure is the most flattering – or, if none of the stats look good, to just point out problems in different methodologies. And poverty campaigners have a duty to acknowledge that the existing definitions have flaws and, unquestionably, have failed to achieve a consensus on the nature of the problem.

The Social Metrics Commission has today launched a new poverty measure, designed to cut through the political mudslinging. The full report sets out the comprehensive new methodology in detail, but here are my top reasons to support it:

Firstly, the Commission knocks on the head some of the rumbling arguments of the last few years. It makes clear that, it its core, poverty must be about a lack of money. And that poverty is relative – it should be about comparing the lowest incomes to the rest of society. In the new measure, if you take the average income in the UK and almost halve it (55% of the median income), then that’s where the poverty line should sit.

Secondly, the new approach is better at understanding the reality of living in poverty. In the past we focused on incomes, but ignored the fact that different people have totally different outgoings, savings and debt levels. A retired person, who owns their home and has savings is obviously in a completely different situation from a single mum, paying soaring childcare bills and high rent, with debts but no savings. Existing metrics would’ve treated them the same if the retiree had a pension at the same level as the mum’s pay from her minimum wage job. The new measure deals with that. It recognises that some costs, like rent and childcare bills are inescapable; that savings can protect you from poverty and debt can tip you over the edge. By building these things in, the new metric feels more real for individuals. It also sensibly readjusts the picture nationally – recognising that families with young children are amongst the most likely to be in poverty.

There are plenty of other reasons why this new methodology trumps others (for example, the statistical ‘smoothing’ of the poverty line over a multi-year period – the Commission’s report explains this much better than I can). But, most of all, this new measure is such a big opportunity because it has cross-party sup-port built-in from the start. It isn’t based on a law passed by Labour nor a definition created by a Conservative think tank.

Chaired by Conservative Peer, Philippa Stroud, the Commission has experts from different political parties – ex-Labour advisers, a former Lib Dem education minister, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and statisticians’ favourite quality-hallmarks, the IFS and ONS in support.

No measure of poverty will ever be perfect but, as Paul Johnson, the Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said, this is the least imperfect one to date.

It must now kick-start a new debate on poverty in the UK. When stats are published about the rising number of children who are being denied a fair start in life because of poverty, I want to see our politicians competing about who has the best solutions – not who can score a political point the quickest. Let’s stop arguing about what poverty is, and get on with ending it.

Steven is Director of UK Poverty Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns for Save the Children UK

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