Today there has been an alarming headline that 1.6 million children in the UK live in ‘severe poverty’. Examples of the reportage can be seen at the BBC and Guardian. Every now and again a news stat sets off a little alarm bell in my head. This was one of those times – according to the Office of National Statistics there are somewhere around 12.1 million children in the UK (2000 census, I suspect little variation since then). So according to today’s reports approximately 13% of children in the UK must live in ‘severe poverty’. That little alarm in my mind was making a coughing noise which only thinly disguised the words ‘bull-shit’. I usually go off on one when pointing out the rotten state the UK was left in after 13 years of Labour but even with blue-tinted specs on I would never claim that they left us with 13% of all kids living in ‘severe poverty’. This figure needed some sniffing.
The original report is from Save the Children. It can be downloaded here. It’s pretty hard to find how they technically defined ‘severe poverty’ for their ‘research’. After a bit of digging it turns out they define it as those living in households with incomes of less than 50% of the UK median income (disregarding housing costs). A median single income in the UK is circa. £20k. I have no idea how they then use their methodology to ‘disregard’ housing costs – but the top and bottom is that a couple with two kids who, after housing costs are paid, have an income of £12.5k a year are classed as in ‘severe poverty’.
When you look at the methodology the metric they use is not about poverty – it’s a about income distribution. Without wishing to belittle the quest for more equitable income distribution- I can’t help but think that such loose use of language cheapens the words ‘severe poverty’ and so insults those millions in the world (including in the UK) who, very literally, do not know where their next meal is coming from. We could have a very important national debate about income disparity and this data could be used to support the case of those who believe the gap is too wide – however to hijack the language ‘severe poverty’ is a distraction from all that is valid in that debate.
Now don’t get me wrong: that couple with those two kids on that income are going to have a horrible time. The report does do a good job of highlighting the very real issues they face. I am also under no illusion that genuine severe poverty exists in this country – the kind were parents go and beg on the street to feed their children – I see some of this here in Birmingham. Some stories that happen right now in my City would make you weep – but to say ‘severe poverty’ is anything other than at the very margins of our society is a fantasy. To suggest, as the words they have chosen do, that 13% of all children live in squalid, desperate circumstances is ludicrous. By overstating it, all Save the Children have done is muddle two debates and distract some focus from tackling those very real cases that do blight our society.