Monday, 19 November 2012

So What Is Poverty?

They're at it again! Coalition proposals to amend the definition of child poverty have produced Labour accusations that the government is shifting goalposts they were going to miss. The analogy is apt, because we're in danger of seeing child poverty used as a political football. Politicians trying to score points through statistics instead of delivering real change.

The consultation paper (Measuring Child Poverty, November 2012) makes some valid points about poverty being more than just income. It proposes a range of other factors including spending, education, housing and parents' abilities, to develop a broader definition of poverty.

But two things are missing. First, if poverty is not just about money, then what is it? The paper offers no alternative definition, although the small print refers to "the circumstances of your birth should not determine where you end up", and "a fair and meritocratic society". So we seem to be talking about outcomes such as life chances and the type of society we want to live in. But there are no indications of how these objectives will be measured. Let's hope it's not just through economic data such as total welfare spend.

Second, the paper simply picks on some statistical indicators where children seem to come off badly. There is a lack of cause-effect evidence, and in some cases an admission that links are poorly understood. Along with clarity of outcomes, we need clear connections to the things that cause those outcomes, not speculation about statistics. For example, if we want "a fair and meritocratic society", then doing something about the huge gap between the highest and lowest paid earners would seem a good start. But this sort of idea doesn't get a mention.

One more thing. To identify cause and effect we should also look at those young people who manage to buck the trend. Those who overcome immense disadvantage to become successful and fulfilled adults. Rare they may be, but if we can understand how these individuals succeed then we might really learn something. Here we need stories, not statistics.

The consultation paper lists 'Characteristics of a good measure', but misses the most important one of all. A good measure should inspire and drive change, not just fuel political arguments. Here the government has failed, and will continue to fail our children.