The politics of the child poverty measurement consultation

February 2013

Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of CPAG, has written this week in Children and Young People Now about the politics of the government's child poverty measurement consultation.

She argues that through its consultation, the government is trying to legitimate a new indicator of child poverty that would not be sensitive to changes in income. As a result, the new measure would obscure the impact of cuts to benefits on the fortunes of low income families.

This piece was first published in Children and Young People Now, 6th February 2013

Playing politics with child poverty

by Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group

Few would argue that growing up in poverty is anything but a bad thing: it robs children of the pleasures of childhood and damages their life chances to boot. But what we mean by poverty is currently being challenged through a public consultation on child poverty measurement. In truth, what looks like a technical exercise is much more political than it might, at first glance, seem.

In June 2012 when the government published the latest child poverty figures, it announced at the same time that it would revisit the question of how we measure child poverty in the UK. Measures that focus primarily on family incomes, it argued, do not fully capture the lived experience of children growing up in poverty.

So far, so good. Very few people would assert that the lives of children growing up in poverty are only characterised by low incomes. They are also marked by problems such as limited access to (often poor) services, by inadequate housing, and by their parents being ill, unhappy or in precarious, low paid jobs. But these other features of life on a low income are not the same as poverty; instead, as social scientists would put it, they are risk factors, correlates or consequences.

Poverty is widely understood as a lack of adequate resources, and in a developed country like the UK, the key resource required to live a decent life is an adequate income. As a result, most of the UK’s core measures of child poverty focus on family income. We track, for example, incomes held constant over time (absolute poverty) as well as how incomes change against the average (relative poverty). Both these measures provide us with critical, but different, information: the first tells us whether the living standards of some are dropping in real terms and the second, whether the fortunes of part of the population are drifting away from the majority over time.

Alongside this, we also measure material deprivation. We record whether children are going without key items such as a winter coat or fresh fruit, or if they are missing out on activities such as birthday parties or school trips. This information complements the income measures, graphically illustrating the way that a lack of disposable income affects children’s lives as well as telling us more about the entrenched nature of poverty. Finally, a persistent poverty measure also provides information about the number of children who live below the poverty line for long periods of time.

We also collect extensive data on child wellbeing in the UK. We know a lot about the health and educational outcomes of children, the environments they grow up in, and their own subjective assessment of their lives through datasets such as the Office of National Statistics Wellbeing series. Consequently, we do not lack measures in the UK; in fact, we are cited as a world leader in the collection and analysis of child data.

All this seems to be by-the-by for the government, however. Instead, as part of its consultation, it is proposing to develop a new multidimensional indicator of child poverty. This would bring together a range of characteristics in a truly incoherent way. Factors that increase the risk of poverty (unemployment and poor parental health) would be brought together with those that correlate with poverty (poor schools and inadequate housing) along with others that are the consequences of low income (not being able to service one’s debt). By some statistical trick, all these different characteristics would be blended together and from this, the government would produce a single number that is supposed to tell us how many children live in poverty in the UK today.

Except, of course, that it won’t. What it will tell us is how many children growing up in low income households also experience multiple disadvantages: not in itself a bad thing to know, perhaps, but it is dishonest to pretend that to live in poverty children must also have parents who are workless, indebted, ill and poorly skilled as well as having a low income. We know that 60% of children living in poverty today have at least one working parent; that 69% live in families where no-one has a disability; and that 71% live in couple families. A new definition of poverty that, to varying degrees, is contingent on worklessness, parental ill health or family stability would simply airbrush these children out of the picture.

In fact, this is exactly what we fear may happen. We know that the coalition’s austerity programme will dramatically increase child poverty as it is currently measured. Swingeing cuts to out-of-work benefits, restrictions on tax credits, the erosion of housing support, and now the delinking of benefit rates from inflation will all conspire to drive up child poverty over the next few years at a rate we haven’t seen in the UK since the1980s.

It makes sense, then, that the government would want to develop a measure that is less sensitive to social security cuts in order to obscure the effect that these are having on the lives of vulnerable children. But what makes this consultation even more disingenuous is the way that the government looks set to employ its new measure to evade its legal duties under the Child Poverty Act (CPA) 2010.

The CPA obliges the government to make progress against four child poverty targets, each of which uses a slightly different measure but all of which are strongly linked to income. Because of this, the government’s programme of cuts cannot be reconciled with the Act: it has had to admit, for example, that the recent decision to break the link between benefit and tax credit levels and inflation will result in an additional 200,000 more children living in poverty in the next three years. Squaring poverty-producing policies such as this with the CPA is simply an impossible brief.

Even before the consultation closes, we see the government evading its obligations to account for its actions against the CPA. There was, for example, no analysis of child poverty in the autumn statement – a telling omission as such references have become standard in recent years. The government has also stalled on answering parliamentary questions about child poverty, and refused to say how the universal credit regulations will have an impact on children on the grounds that they do not believe the current metrics are robust.

By opening up the question of child poverty measurement to a public consultation the government is attempting to give a veneer of legitimacy to dubious practice such as this. Repealing the CPA would be very difficult politically – who wants to be the government that breaks its own commitment to end child poverty? Instead, by consulting far and wide on the new measure, the government is claiming it will develop a new consensus on child poverty. It can turn consultation responses that agree that child poverty doesn’t look like just low income into support for a new measure that is neither necessary nor robust, and in truth will be used to disguise the real impact of a brutal programme of cuts.

None of this is to say that other things aren’t important for children in low income families. It does matter if your parents are unemployed, are ill or their relationship breaks down. It matters if they have crippling debts they cannot pay, or have low skills that confine them to precarious, low pay jobs. If a child’s local school is badly managed, or their housing is damp and overcrowded, that matters too. So all these things should be tracked, and if needed, better measures developed to ensure we understand the interactions between such factors and low income, and can design better policies as a result.

The government argues, however, that because they are so sensitive to reductions to the incomes of families, the current child poverty measures force its hand with respect to policy. But this is precisely what they are designed to do: to ensure that as a country we protect the livelihoods of those at the bottom because we know what damage an inadequate family income does to children’s lives. If the government wants to prioritise other types of policy intervention beyond social security, it is entirely free to do so: it could develop new targets with respect to each of the dimensions it identifies in the consultation, for example, and fund actions relating to these areas when spending decisions are made.

All this political game playing has completely lost sight of those children who are (or will be) growing up in poverty over the course of the next decade as a result of policies such as cuts to child benefit, to disability and sickness support, or the introduction of the benefit cap. So, if you are asked for your views as part of the consultation, think carefully before you reply. Let’s have open, frank discussions about the way that low incomes affect children’s lives, let’s tackle the gamut of issues that impact on broader child-wellbeing. But pretend that poverty is not about an adequate family income? That can only play into a programme of cuts that are not going to help any of the children in this country that we all seek to foster and protect.