How should we measure child poverty?

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How do you define child poverty? Is it purely an issue of money, or are there actually a range of factors that have an influence? SecEd editor Pete Henshaw critiques government plans to change the definition of what "living in poverty" means.

The issue of child poverty is the single biggest challenge of our time and it is one we are failing – currently 2.3 million UK children are considered to be living in poverty.

This statement is at odds with figures showing that last year 300,000 children were lifted out of poverty. However, this happened not because of any government policy or real change in these children’s lives, but purely because of a drop in UK income levels.

This is because poverty is currently defined on relative household income and whether it is more or less than 60 per cent of the UK median.

So the perverse situation in the UK is that as government cuts and widespread unemployment hit the nation, families are forced to survive on much lower incomes – but at the same time more children are said to have escaped poverty.

In reality, however, the poorest families are the ones actually being hit hardest by the recession and government austerity measures – as was shown by the Save the Children report late last year (see http://bit.ly/14DolxN).

The debate has come to the fore after Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, launched a consultation on the creation of a wider measure of child poverty. 

He believes that a variety of factors have an influence on whether a child is “in poverty” – issues such as family debt or unemployment, living in unsafe areas, or parental health problems. He even suggests that “quality of schooling” could be included (see our report: http://bit.ly/UJ0ynT).

The consultation closes on February 15, but Mr Duncan Smith this week spoke specifically about one possible indicator – parental addiction to drugs or alcohol.

This is because a survey of 1,000 adults as part of the consultation found that of 12 suggested indicators (of the kind listed above), 90 per cent of the respondents felt that having parents who are addicted to drugs or drink was a very important or important factor in child poverty.

In his speech, Mr Duncan Smith announced two new schemes to help addicted parents get back on track and find work or learn new skills. He also spoke of his concern that families blighted by addiction may be classified financially as “not in poverty”, but because the parent/s may be using their money to feed addictions, their children could actually be worse off than many whose families have much lower incomes. So while the consultation on wider poverty factors is still ongoing (www.education.gov.uk/aboutdfe/departmentalinformation/consultations), it seems likely that this particular indicator will be favoured.

So what to make of it all? This is a complex and difficult area, but Mr Duncan Smith is dead right to say that “a fixation on moving people over an arbitrary line” has led to a loss of focus on the real issues or the wider circumstances that can lead to children’s lives being blighted by poverty.

But we need to be careful. As the Save the Children study found, most families in poverty are struggling to make ends meet because they cannot afford the basics – food, school equipment and uniforms, heating, clothes. In fact many parents are going hungry in order to feed their children. One in 10 parents in poverty have cut back on food themselves to make sure their children can eat, while a quarter have skipped meals because of financial worries.

The Children’s Society has also, quite rightly, taken issue with the implication that families in poverty are simply blowing their money on drugs and drink.

The reality is that government cuts to benefits and local services are hitting poor families hard – they are suffering because they are bearing the brunt of the recession and austerity, not because of drug or drink addiction.

And while I acknowledge the problems with the current approach, if Mr Duncan Smith’s new poverty indicator leads to families being considered to be out of poverty simply because parents are in work or aren’t addicted to drugs, then this will leave us in an even worse situation where even more poverty-stricken children go under the radar.


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