So, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies 2.9 million children in the UK will live in ‘Poverty’ by the end of this Parliament (up from 2.2 million at the start). That means 22.2% of the whole child population in the UK. Really? I’ve bitched about the use of the word ‘poverty’ before. Here we go again.
To be crystal clear my rant is not about the methodology applied, policy points, conclusions of the report and certainly not a pop at the authors. It is a sobering read. Nobody will take any comfort from the raw data presented. Every reader will gain a greater sense of urgency to address our economic weakness. I have a wife and 2 kids. I would not want to try to live on a total family income of £347 per week after tax is taken and any benefits added. My rant is entirely about language. Language matters. Particularly when it informs political debate. And so we get to the language of ‘poverty’.
Since at least the early 1990s NGOs, Academics and ‘think-tanks’ have been using various flavours of the concept of ‘relative poverty’ for these types of reports. For example, the definition the IFS use today: “An individual is considered to be in relative poverty if it lives in a household whose income is below 60% of the median in that year”. If you just pause and think about that you realise that it’s not a measure of ability to buy essential stuff – it’s a measure of the income distribution gap. By that model everyone in the UK could get a pay-rise, prices could go down, and you could still see ‘poverty’ go up. Conversely you could theoretically reduce everyone’s wage to 50p a day, with rising prices, and poverty would be deemed defeated. Does that sound right to you?
Without wishing to belittle the quest for more equitable income distribution – I can’t help but think that such subtle manipulation of common language cheapens the word ‘poverty’ and by widening the net draws attention away from those millions in the world (including the many thousands in the UK) who, very literally, do not know where their next meal is coming from. There is an important national debate to be had about income disparity and this data could be used to support the case of those who believe the gap is far too wide – however to hijack the language of ‘poverty’ seems a cheap way to point-score in that debate.
My language gripe isn’t new and the academics always point out that there is a distinction between ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ poverty that us common muckers are slow to get. To be fair, report footnotes usually do clarify that they are using a ‘relative poverty’ measure and authors will say it is beyond their control if news editors don’t draw the nuance to the reader’s attention (though the editor isn’t helped if they make the definition hard to find in their press release and are banking on ‘churnalism’ reportage of their work to further their agendas!).
Anyway, the concept of ‘absolute poverty’ is what a non-academic would imagine is meant in ordinary language if the word did not have the ‘relative’ or ‘absolute’ qualifier. By example the World Bank used to use the metric of an income of $1.25USD or less per day as their global ‘absolute poverty’ marker.
The freaky thing about today’s report is that it breaks the trend by tracking both ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ poverty and here’s the scoop: In 2015 more UK Children will apparently be living in ‘absolute’ poverty than ‘relative’ poverty! (see note 8 at this link). Again, if you stop and think about that it sounds nuts and counter-intuitive and raises all sorts of questions. Safe to say they are not using the World Bank metric here. So what calculation are they using for ‘absolute poverty’ to get such a quirk? Well, it turns out their definition is: “[a person who] lives in a household whose real-terms income is below 60% of the 2010–11 median”. Come again? We define our ‘absolute poverty ‘ metric by a ‘relative poverty’ frozen snapshot from the past? What clowns came up with that one? Well – it isn’t the IFS.
Actually, it turns out the clowns who came up with that one are our MPs. The definitions that the IFS are using are the ones that are defined in the UK Child Poverty Act of 2010. It’s there in the Act’s definitions. There is no party political point here – this Act had all party agreement. The legally binding target for the Government is to get absolute poverty as defined in the act down to less than 5%. They are projecting for 24.4% by 2020! Talk about a government making a rod for its back. The whole Act is a political device to compel a focus on narrowing the income gap ahead of prioritising generating more wealth. The two are not mutually exclusive, and many will think that focus on the former is no bad thing – but the point is that it effectively shuts down our ability to have a healthy debate about the relative merits of a priority choice.
That’ s why language matters. Deciding exactly where to draw the poverty line was always going to be subjective – but once drawn and enshrined in law any attempt to query it creates the impression you are ‘in favour of child poverty’ – much as if you query quirky provisions of the Human Rights Act you are ‘against Human Rights’. That invites intellectual dishonesty and stifles the quality of our political debate.
My personal obsession with the word ‘poverty’ aside, we should still heed the report itself rather than just react to the headlines. The last paragraph of the summary:
“The Government might consider whether it would be more productive to set realistic targets for child poverty, along with concrete suggestions for reaching them, verified with a quantitative modelling exercise such as this one. The authors also suggest that the Government consider how best to adjust the absolute poverty line over time to reflect changes in the cost of living faced by poor households.”