Child poverty measures saved! A note from Kitty Stewart

Dr Kitty Stewart prepared a joint letter about Child Poverty Statistics which was signed by 170 academics, and published in The Times.  The Times keeps the details behind a paywall, so with Kitty’s permission I am posting the letter and list of signatories here.

This is the text of the letter:

This week the House of Commons will decide whether to persist in abolishing the UK’s child poverty indicators, replacing them with ‘life chances’ measures of worklessness and educational attainment. We urge the government to listen to the Lords and retain the existing indicators, keeping income and material deprivation at the heart of child poverty measurement.

Research shows conclusively that income has a causal effect on child development: children in poor households do less well in part because of low family income. Worklessness is an inadequate proxy for children’s circumstances: two-thirds of UK children in poverty live with a working adult.

A recent government consultation showed overwhelming support for the current measures from academics, local authorities, frontline services and others. Just 1% of respondents supported removing income from poverty measurement.
Wider indicators of children’s well-being are welcome and important, but should not come at the expense of the existing poverty measures, which are vital to our ability to track the impact of economic and policy change.

Kitty has subsequently written:

The government has backed down on the abolition of the child poverty measures. The Bishop of Durham’s amendment was defeated in the Commons last week, but the government subsequently put a revised amendment to the Lords which does pretty much the same thing. There will be no requirement to report to parliament, but the law will continue to require annual publication of all four of the existing measures.

Maybe our joint letter, which was published in the Times on the morning of the Commons debate, added a little bit of extra pressure at a key moment, on top of the strength of the vote in the Lords and the concerted opposition from children’s charities and others. Whether it did or not, it seems that making a lot of noise can still make a difference, which is very cheering!


Good news on infant mortality

Here’s some good news, for once, which I was pointed to by a report about China in the Economist.  International organisations have identified ten countries which have made exceptional progress in keeping children alive.  The basic figures are here; a report explaining what those countries have done to achieve it is here.  A substantial part of it is the improvement in the health of the mothers.

Under 5 mortality rate per 1000 live births
1990 2013
Bangladesh 144 41
Cambodia 116 40
China   54 14
Egypt   86 21
Ethiopia 204 68
Lao PDR 163 72
Nepal 142 42
Peru   79 18
Rwanda 151 55
Viet Nam   51 23


Misunderstanding persistent poverty

The Government’s Child Poverty Strategy is based squarely on an argument that government has to break the cycle of poverty.

This Government is focused on breaking the cycle of disadvantage …  Children experiencing poverty face multiple disadvantages that often continue throughout their lives and are all too often continue on to the next generation.(p 17)

This is, more or less, a restatement of Keith Joseph’s idea of the ‘cycle of deprivation’ .  The Strategy explains:

We must continue with our mission to break the cycle of poor children going on to be poor adults. This process starts at the beginning of life and poor children are four times as likely to become poor adults as other children. (p 14)

The Strategy refers at both these points, and at three others, to research showing that poor children are four times more likely than others to be poor as adults.   The figure comes from a study published in 2006 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  Except that this is not really what the JRF study is about.  The authors of that study, Blanden and Gibbons, explain:

poor teenagers in the 1970s grew up to be poor because of more general family background disadvantages, in particular parental non-employment and low education – poverty itself had little or no direct effect over and above these teenage family factors. However, for teenagers in the 1980s, poverty had a direct effect on the chances of ending up in poverty, even when allowing for differences in these same aspects of family background.  … Our results find evidence of a significant persistence of poverty from teens to the early thirties and through to early middle age. Comparing the persistence of poverty from across the cohorts indicates that the strength of this persistence has approximately doubled (pp ix, 2).

The study is rather good.  Here is what they found (p 7):

Poor as teenagers Not poor as teenagers
Poor in their thirties (%)


Not poor in their thirties (%)


Poor in their thirties (%)


Not poor in their thirties (%)


Teenage boys mid 70s 18.9 81.2 10.1 89.9
Teenage girls mid 70s 18.6 81.5 5.3 94.7
Teenage boys mid 80s 28.8 71.2 16.9 83.1
Teenage girls mid 80s 23.7 76.3 8 92


That certainly does show that teenagers who are poor are more likely to be poor when they are adults.  But it also tells us that most poor teenagers do not become poor adults;  and that the risks of poverty becoming persistent grow when the economy is depressed, as it was in the 1980s.  Poverty is persistent across different periods of people’s lives for a relatively small proportion of the population – 1.4% of men, 3.1% of women.

The JRF study is concerned with the prospects of teenagers and the persistence of poverty into adulthood.   It is not, then,  a demonstration of the ‘cycle of deprivation’.  On the contrary, it points again to issues which have been shown repeatedly in the past:  that there is considerable movement in and out of poverty, that persistent poverty through a person’s lifetime is already relatively unusual, and that consequently transmission between generations is going to be more unusual still.  The authors note that “teenage poverty is much more important in determining poverty in adulthood than poverty in earlier childhood” and go so far as to suggest that “addressing the adulthood causes of poverty directly is likely to be much more beneficial over adults’ lifecycles than tackling poverty faced in childhood.”  (p 34)


Public employment as a protection from poverty

Working in preparation for the budget, I’ve been looking at some stats from the OECD.  I was interested to find out to what extent  public sector employment could be thought of as a way of protecting the economy, and that led me to the nearest approximation I could find,  “Employment in general government and public corporations“.  The figures don’t show any clear relationship to economic performance, but I wondered if they might show a different kind of effect.  Here is a table tracking the OECD’s listings of public sector employment and child poverty.

Employment in general government and public corporations Poverty among children, %, late 2000s
Norway 29.3 5.5
Denmark 28.7 3.7
Sweden 26.2 7
Finland 22.9 5.2
France 21.9 9.3
Hungary 19.5 7.3
United Kingdom 17.4 13.2
Belgium 17.1 10
Canada 16.5 14.8
Israel 16.5 18.7
Australia 15.6 14
Ireland 14.8 11
United States 14.6 21.6
Italy 14.3 12.2
Czech Republic 12.8 8.8
Spain 12.3 17.2
Portugal 12.1 18.7
Netherlands 12.0 9.6
Austria 11.4 7.2
Turkey 11.0 23.5
New Zealand 9.8 12.2
Germany 9.6 8.3
Chile 9.1 24
Mexico 8.8 25.8
Greece 7.9 13.2
Japan 6.7 14.2

There are reasons not to trust the figures here – is child poverty in the UK only 13.2%? – and simple statistics can mislead, but a correlation of the two columns comes out on Excel at -0.56, which is unusually high for social data. It does look as though public sector employment and job creation in the public sector are key elements protecting people from poverty.

Child poverty: money doesn't help, says Duncan Smith

Iain Duncan Smith has explained to the Daily Mail that there is no point in spending money to get children out of poverty because there are parents who will only waste the money on drugs and alcohol.

Duncan Smith explains: “There are around 100,000 people claiming sickness benefits whose illness is primarily down to their drug or alcohol addiction.” It’s debatable whether that figure is right. The DWP’s main figures on addiction come from population-based estimates, not from specific information about claimants. Initial figures of the numbers of people who attribute their incapacity to problem drug use put the figure closer to 10,000, but that implies disclosure and it might be a severe underestimate.

Even if Duncan Smith is right about the numbers of people with problems of addiction, however, it wouldn’t necessarily support his position. The figure he gives don’t seem to refer directly to families with children. Current estimates put 1.75 million children in households where no-one is working, just under a million households. There are 3.7 million workless households – that is, households where at least one person aged 16-64 is not working. So it’s only just over a quarter of households on ‘out of work’ benefits where there is any child under 16, and general statements about the numbers of benefit claimants mis-state the case. It’s not clear, besides, why some people with problems on ‘sickness benefits’ should raise any questions about ten times the number of families with children which rely on benefits for their basic income.

It looks then as if Duncan Smith’s statement boils down to the claim that families with children shouldn’t get benefits because some other people on benefits are awful. I have the uncomfortable feeling that if I ever have to claim, perhaps someone might decide that I’m awful too. I’d much rather we had a benefit system which didn’t depend on judgments of this sort.

Measuring Child Poverty: a formal response

I’ve previously posted my immediate reaction to the consultation on measuring child poverty. I’ve now prepared a more considered academic response, which is attached here. The submission argues that the approach will not achieve what the government says it wants to achieve, which is a measure of poverty as a multi-dimensional experience.

Three generations who have never worked

A new report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation gives a recognisably faithful picture of the situation of workless people in deprived communities. It shows, yet again, that the myth about “three generations who have never worked” is drivel. The researchers searched “doggedly” in areas of high unemployment for anyone to fit the criteria, and there wasn’t anyone. I’m not surprised, because that’s exactly what the previous longitudinal studies, going back to 1950s, have found: see e.g. Atkinson et al (1983) Parents and children, or Kolvin et al (1990) Continuities of deprivation.

The consultation on child poverty

The DWP and Department for Education are consulting on “better measures” of child poverty that will include a range of considerations – deprivation, parenting skills, worklessness, debt, housing, education, parental health, and family stability.

There are three fundamental muddles here. The first is the confusion between definition and correlation. We know that some people are more likely than others to be poor, such as families headed by women or people in lower social classes, which are not on the list. Even if all the things in the consultation were associated with poverty, it would not mean that they defined poverty.

Second, an association – an increased likelihood – is not the same thing as a characteristic. Poor families are more likely to have children at risk – but that does not mean that most, or even many children are at risk because they are in poor families. Poor families where children are at risk are a very small minority.

Third, the model in the consultation is based in an unjustifiable, stereotypical identification here of poverty and family problems. Many people – on low income figures, most – have been poor at some point in their lives, and all of us are vulnerable to poverty. Family problems are something quite different.

Official statistics and the 'neighbours from hell'

I have written today to the UK Statistics Authority to raise some questions about the government’s figures on “troubled families”. In December the Prime Minister explained:

Today, I want to talk about troubled families. Let me be clear what I mean by this phrase. Officialdom might call them ‘families with multiple disadvantages’. Some in the press might call them ‘neighbours from hell’. … We’ve always known that these families cost an extraordinary amount of money, but now we’ve come up the actual figures. Last year the state spent an estimated £9 billion on just 120,000 families – that is around £75,000 per family.

The same figures have been repeated in a series of government statements, including material from the Department of Communities and Local Government, the Home Office and the DWP.

The UK Statistics Authority exists to guarantee the integrity of official statistics in the UK. They have established a range of criteria for integrity, transparency and quality, but among other requirements they state that departments should

  • “Ensure that official statistics are produced according to scientific principles”
  • “Publish details of the methods adopted, including explanations of why particular choices were made.”
  • “Issue statistical reports separately from any other statement or comment about the figures and ensure that no statement or comment – based on prior knowledge – is issued to the press or published ahead of the publication of the statistics.”

That is not what’s happened here. “We’ve come up with the actual figures”, the PM’s statement says, and policy has been rolled out from that starting point. Some explanation of where the figure of 120,000 families come from appeared in a note from the Department of Education, though it was not publicized; there have been trenchant criticisms from Jonathan Portes and Ruth Levitas, on the basis that there is no connection between the indicators used to identify troubled families and the problems of crime and anti-social behaviour. The basis of the costings is still not publicly available. I’ve asked the Statistics Authority to consider whether there has been a breach of their Code of Practice.

More on larger families

I took part today in a phone-in on Radio Scotland. Three main issues were raised.

The first issue is an assumption that people opt to live a life on benefits and have children as a way of increasing their benefits. This is a misunderstanding. Larger families tend to be older families (because it takes time to have a larger family). They come to benefits for other reasons – typically unemployment, disability or divorce – after a change in circumstances. Much the biggest group of people who get long term benefits are older people with disabilities. They are are less likely to have young children than others.

The second issue is an assumption that people who have lots of children gets lots of benefits, and those benefits will be lost if people work. For the most part, that isn’t so; it’s not how our benefits system works. Most of the allowances for dependent children on income-tested benefits have disappeared. People get Child Benefit whether they work or not. The main effect of having a larger family is either to change the calculation of Housing Benefit and Tax Credit, or to change the size of house that a family needs. Their rules apply to people in or out of work. If entitlements to larger families were cut, it would directly affect entitlements of people in work – which would have the opposite of the effect that Iain Duncan Smith is claiming. It would also create a penalty for combining families, another perverse incentive.

The third part of the story is that the money needs to be used elsewhere. Apart from the obvious rejoinder, which is that it won’t be used elsewhere – the government is trying to save £10 billion – it won’t save much either. What it will do is to create greater hardship for a particular group of claimants – 300,000 out of nearly six million. That 300,000 is responsible for more than a million children; on paper the cuts would apply to a minority of the children, but of course they would affect the welfare of all of them. I was troubled in the discussion by the repeated assertion from Alex Johnstone MSP that “welfare needs to be a safety net”, by which he means that it should be confined to the role of a safety net. It needs to be much more than that; it needs to protect people from disruptive changes that will push them into hardship. The proposal threatens to make matters much worse.