A new poverty measure?

Today, the Social Metrics Commission (SMC) has published the results of its research into a new way of measuring poverty. You may think that we already have a good way of measuring poverty, and that’s true, so what does this new offering from the SMC add?

Firstly, it’s worth acknowledging that not everyone agrees that there is poverty in the UK. Despite a wealth of evidence, from people being driven to use foodbanks, to rising homelessness, some are not convinced. Indeed there is often denial of the scale of the problem within the government. The SMC had the unenviable task of getting input and agreement from a range of experts with different perspectives – from academics, policy specialists, statisticians and other experts – and they’ve come up with a measure they all agree on. This broad consensus is very welcome.

Secondly, the measure the SMC has produced has some very useful features. It focuses a great deal on people’s unavoidable costs. If someone has childcare and rent to pay, the money they need to spend on those things is not available to spend on other things. They don’t have a choice in paying for these things, and therefore the measure reports what resources people have after housing and childcare costs have been deducted. The measure also considers disability costs – and does not count any social security support like personal independence payment as income, because it’s there to support people with the additional costs associated with having a disability.

Thirdly, the measure includes ‘lived experience indicators’, which will help shed light on different aspects of poverty, such as the impact on health and wellbeing, and should inform policy making. And it will also look at how poor people actually are (the depth of poverty) and for how long (the persistence of poverty).

Under this new measure, child poverty is slightly higher than under the Housing Below Average Income (HBAI) measure. But, strikingly, it illustrates that far fewer pensioners are living in poverty, although many still struggle to make ends meet. We know that government action like introducing the ‘triple-lock’ on pensions (so that they rise in line with earnings, inflation or 2.5% - whichever is greatest) has been incredibly effective at reducing the number of pensioners living in poverty. It’s high time that benefits for children are protected in the same way.

There are lots of different ways we can measure poverty, and it’s important we consider a range of indicators. What this new measure does is add to our understanding of poverty – of whether a family’s resources are enough to meet their needs in society today. We now need the government to wake up to the appalling level of child poverty, as shown by this measure and others, and to put in place a plan to tackle it. As the Commission says, it’s time to move on from the arguments about how to measure the problem. It’s time to fix it.