Thursday, 3 January 2013

What is poverty anyway?

The government wants to change the way child poverty is measured, last November they published proposals for consultation and have invited responses before 15th February. Most developed countries, including the UK measure child poverty in the same way i.e. an income below 60% of median income. Experts agree it is a bit rough and ready but it measures progress over time and enables comparison between countries. In 1999 New Labour introduced the commitment to half child poverty by 2010 and eliminate it by 2020, the measure they used was 60% of median income.

The Coalition Government concedes that 'income and material deprivation' is an important part of child poverty but argues that it is not the whole story. They say child poverty has a number of other 'dimensions' and the proposals include:

  • Worklessness
  • Unmanageable debt
  • Poor housing
  • Parental skills - meaning educational qualifications
  • Access to quality education
  • Family stability - meaning growing up in a two parent family
  • Parental health - the government includes substance misuse and disability

Poor families are no different to other families in experiencing a range of problems, or no problems but the one thing that ALL poor families have in common is not enough money. The government's proposals actually muddle two different ideas POVERTY (not enough money) and IMPOVERISHMENT (inadequate quality of life).

A brief survey of the 'dimensions' shows what government should do if it really wants to reduce child poverty:

  1. Worklessness - getting on for two thirds of children living in poverty in the UK live in working families. The issue is not worklessness but poorly paid work. The government should legislate for a living wage and focus on job creation.
  2. Unmanageable debt - if people were paid a living wage they would not need to go into debt. The government should legislate to prevent loan companies charging exorbitant interest rates.
  3. Poor housing - most poor children live in social housing, maintenance is the responsibility of the landlord, not the parents. Although paid to families, Housing Benefit is actually a subsidy for landlords, government should legislate to ensure landlords maintain properties to an acceptable standard.
  4. Parental skills - New Labour introduced Children's Centres in every neighbourhood to support parents and encourage them to improve their skills and readiness for work. The Coalition has allowed local authorities to chose whether they continue to support Children's Centres. Government should reinstate the importance of Children's Centres and fund them appropriately.
  5. Access to quality education - it is the government's responsibility to ensure there are sufficient good quality early years and school places but also critically that the education system does not further disadvantage children from poorer families.
  6. Family stability - but what sort of stability? Constant conflict in family life diminishes childhood experience; growing up in a single parent family can be a better alternative; adult life can be stressful for all sorts of reasons that distracts parents from always paying sufficient attention to children's needs. The  government should develop policies that recognise the huge variety of family arrangements and  reduces stress on families.
  7. Parental health - some parental ill-health is brought on by stress (mental health problems, substance misuse) but these are certainly not restricted to the poor. Children may be young carers of their parents. Government is currently putting even greater pressure on disabled adults and parents who have physical and mental health problems by reducing entitlement to benefits and forcing them into work. Instead they should be reducing stress on families and legislate to recognise the role of young carers.
Children North East is joining with the North East Child Poverty Commission and Children England to respond to the consultation, we will also be making our own response based on what children, young people and parents tell us about their experience of poverty. Our message to government is clear: don't mess about with the way poverty is measured, focus on the things that only government can do to reduce child poverty.