How should we measure child poverty?

David Kingman explores the recent suggestion from the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith that the government should find a more comprehensive way of measuring child poverty

What does poverty look like in the UK? This is actually a much harder question to answer than might appear to be the case at first glance, and ten different people could easily give you ten different answers.

As part of the “Rich World”, Britain is fortunately spared the kind of absolute deprivation which the word “poverty” often conjures up in the popular imagination – accompanied by images of African slums and Brazilian favelas – where we are frequently reminded that millions of people struggle to survive on less than $1 per day.

Instead, like other developed countries, Britain has a problem with what experts call “relative poverty”; people who have very little in comparison to the better-off sections of society, even though they may not be doing too badly on the global scale of poverty. Relative poverty which affects children has been a major problem in British society for hundreds of years (think Oliver Twist and the dark spectre of the Victorian workhouse), and is associated with a wide range of broader social problems: children who grow up in relative poverty are less likely to do well at school or get good jobs later on, and they tend to have poorer health and shorter life expectancy than their more affluent peers, according to the Child Poverty Action Group.

Child poverty also strikes many people as inherently unfair. After all, children cannot choose what kind of family they are born into or how wealthy their parents are, so it seems unjust for something which has such wide-ranging implications for their life chances to be essentially the result of bad luck.

How do we measure child poverty?

Despite widespread agreement that child poverty is an important social issue, it remains a surprisingly difficult phenomenon to measure. This goes back to the fact that we are talking about relative poverty here; how many children we think are living in poverty has a lot to do with where we chose to make the point of comparison between the haves and the have-nots.

At present, the government considers a child to be living in poverty if their household income is below 60% of the national median average. According to the ONS, this equated to a household income of less than £215 per week (or £11,200 per year) in 2011.

Under this measure, Britain had 2.3 million children living in poverty. This was actually a reduction of 300,000 compared to the year before, but this reduction was caused by falling median income as a result of the recession – in other words, the fact that the average person became poorer meant that fewer children were poorer than him/her by comparison, rather than these children necessarily experiencing any improvements in their own quality of life.

This result shows one of the flaws of relying upon a relative statistical measure to calculate such an important social trend. Partly in response to this, the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has said he wants to launch a consultation into finding a new way of measuring child poverty which would be more comprehensive, taking more account of related factors which can influence a child’s quality of life, such as family breakdown, debt, education and addiction.

As he put it:

“There are many factors that impact on a child’s wellbeing and ability to succeed in life… and measuring income alone does little to represent the experience of those in poverty… For the 300,000 children no longer in poverty according to the official statistics, life was no different.”

Should we change how we measure child poverty?

This issue demonstrates the important point that how a problem is measured inevitably shapes how it is analysed, and therefore how people think it should be solved. Using a purely income-based means of measuring child poverty paints the problem in a certain way, and puts the onus upon addressing it through wealth transfers, without taking account of poverty’s other dimensions.

Iain Duncan Smith has raised this criticism publicly in the past, arguing against what he’s called the “poverty plus a pound” view of child poverty, where the use of income-based measures of poverty has encouraged people working in this field to try and get households that were officially impoverished just over the threshold where they appear to be out of poverty in the official statistics, without their lives witnessing any dramatic improvements.

Having said that, the benefit of having such a clear measure of poverty – one which effectively over-simplifies the problem – is that it does provide campaigners and commentators with a target which the government can be held to.

Chris Wellings, from campaign group Save the Children, made this criticism of the government’s idea:

“The previous measure was very sharp, it allowed us to hold the government to account… Any new measure needs to retain income and needs to retain an ability for us to really hold the government to account for their action on child poverty.”

This in itself is useful, because the most important thing is that the government needs to be encouraged to keep working against child poverty, however they eventually decide it should be measured.