The government has released the latest official poverty statistics (for 2013/14). Anyone aware of the projections made by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the National Policy Institute think-tanks may be feeling slightly confused that, essentially, child poverty rates haven't shifted on the previous year (although half a million more children are in absolute poverty than in 2010).
So, what do and what don't the figures tell us? The government is saying the big story is that “the percentage of individuals and children in relative low income is at its lowest level since the 1980s".
Evidently, despite the prime minister's avowed doubts about the value of using a relative child poverty measure, it is okay to use that measure when it is not delivering bad news. Ministers are also tight-lipped on the fact that the big falls in child poverty happened before 2011.
While the new figures tell us there has not been a statistically significant decrease in child poverty levels, they also make it pretty clear that the government is significantly off track when it comes to fulfilling its commitment to end child poverty by 2020.
Child poverty remained static in 2013/14 for the fourth year in a row: 3.7 million children (on the after housing costs indicator) are still living in poverty. That's 27 per cent of all children – or nine children in a classroom of 30.
Many are confused by how this fits with the projections that child poverty was set to rise. The IFS has projected that poverty would rise through analysing changes to tax and benefit policy combined with the labour market trends recorded by the Labour Force Survey (Five million children face living in poverty by 2020, SecEd, June 5, 2014: http://bit.ly/1J9A4b7).
The data released last week is based on the Family Resources Survey which samples 20,000 households, rather than the whole population, so naturally is subject to a margin of error. In the words of the statisticians behind the latest figures, the results are “estimates, not precise figures", which means there could in fact be increases or decreases in poverty levels which aren't picked up by the sample.
They found changes to taxes, earnings and benefits combining so that incomes in the middle and bottom of the distribution remained largely unchanged. One possible reason for the difference in the two sets of figures is that the survey underlying the new figures showed higher employment increases than the Labour Force Survey used by IFS.
Most importantly though, these figures for a single year should not detract from the robust projections that show child poverty set to rise significantly by 2020 – even before the £12 billion of cuts to social security are factored in. It is the longer term trend we should pay close attention to, not individual years, the IFS cautions. Fears about the looming child poverty crisis remain.
One notable figure among the many reams of papers that make up this release is around working families. Two-thirds (64 per cent) of children growing up in poverty are in working families. This has risen by one per cent, and while the size of the survey means that this is not statistically significant, it shows that the high levels of in-work poverty are not changing.
Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith's view on this is somewhat different: “We know that work is the best route out of poverty, with children in workless families around three times as likely to be in poverty than those in working families." Yes, that's right, but not the full picture. Families are less likely to be living in poverty if they are working, but work has not provided a route out of poverty for around 2.3 million children.
The Child Poverty Act legally commits the government to eradicate child poverty. To achieve this, child poverty rates need to be slashed to just over a third of the figures released last week for 2013/14. Ministers should treat these figures as a warning, not as vindication.
Megan Jarvie is London campaign co-ordinator for the Child Poverty Action Group. This blog first appeared on the website of the CPAG, which is a national charity working to end poverty among children, young people and families in the UK. Visit www.cpag.org.uk