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.

Can Europe act on poverty?

The European Commission has proposed the development of a new fund to give European aid to the ‘most deprived’, mainly homeless people and children in poverty. The money would be directed through Member States or ‘partner organisations’ – that is, through NGOs.

I’ve written in the past about the Commission’s attempts to establish competence by developing programmes that create a precedent (see The principle of subsidiarity and the social policy of the European Community, Journal of European Social Policy, 1991 1(1), pp 3-14; Social policy in a federal Europe, Social Policy and Administration 1996 30(4) 293-304). When the Lingua programme allowed the EU to fund language teaching in schools, the responsible commissioner claimed: “we now have competence in education”. It’s been a long time since the EU did much to pursue that agenda; but if this fund is approved, the EU will have competence in poverty relief.

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.

Multiple disadvantage in Scotland

The Think Tank Demos has published a report about multiply disadvantaged families in Scotland. Families are described as “multiply disadvantaged” if they meet four or more of seven criteria:

  • low income
  • worklessness
  • no educational qualifications
  • overcrowding
  • ill health
  • mental health problems
  • poor neighbourhood.

There are 131,000 households who are multiply disadvantaged by this definition. Of those, 52,000 are pensioners, and 55,000 are households without children; 24,000 are households with children. The category of pensioners is based on 3 criteria of 6, because it excludes worklessness; overcrowding is not really a useful indicator either.

This is not the same test as the Westminster government uses for its definition of “troubled families”. That test is based on them meeting five of the following seven criteria:

  1. having a low income,
  2. no one in the family who is working
  3. poor housing,
  4. parents who have no qualifications,
  5. where the mother has a mental health problem
  6. one parent has a long-standing illness or disability, and
  7. where the family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.

The overlap between the criteria does make it plausible to suggest, though, that someone who is “multiply disadvantaged” in the Demos report will probably also score four or more on the “troubled families” score. As the Demos authors note, there is no implication that families who are disadvantaged in these terms present problems for other people – but there is no reason to suppose that from the criteria for “troubled families” either. And there has to be some suspicion about the tenor of a report which goes on to tie the characteristics of poverty to alcohol, drug use and child neglect – none of which applies to most, or even to many, of the families identified through these statistics.

The finding that there are only 24,000 families with children in Scotland who are multiply disadvantaged even on as few as four indicators does raise some questions about the direction of policy, which has tended to focus on the characteristics and culture of poor people as something set apart. There are some points to draw from the figures:

  • Scotland is a society where more than one person in six of working age receives an ‘out of work’ benefit, and a quarter of Scotland’s children are in low income households – but the vast majority of people in this position are not ‘multiply disadvantaged’ by the definitions in this report
  • showing that social problems are more prevalent than elsewhere does not mean that they are actually likely – most people who are ‘multiply disadvantaged’ do not have them
  • if the number of families who might be said to be multiply disadvantaged by these criteria is small, the numbers who might after that be said to suffer ‘intergenerational deprivation’ in these terms is, necessarily, smaller still
  • while multiple disadvantage is a legitimate cause of concern in itself, it is neither typical of poor families or commonplace.

It makes sense to design policies that can effectively reach people who are most disadvantaged. Poverty in Scotland is much more widespread, however, and it makes no sense to make such policies the basis for anti-poverty strategy more generally.

Using median income as a measure of poverty

Earlier this year I had a paper published about the use of 60% of the median income as a measure of poverty (Why refer to poverty as a proportion of median income?, Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, Volume 20, Number 2, June 2012 , pp. 163-175.) I suggested it would be simpler, and easier to justify, if the reference figure was 50% of median earnings instead. According to recent figures in the HBAI series, 60% of median income fell from £259 in 2010 to £251 pw in 2011. By contrast, 50% of median earnings fell from £250pw to £249 pw.

Why refer to poverty as a proportion of median income?

This is the abstract of a paper I’ve just had published in the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, vol 20(2) pp 163-176 – the paper is not online yet but I have received a paper copy, so it will appear shortly.

“The most widely used indicator of poverty refers to a threshold set at 60% of median income. This paper reviews the implications of this approach and the conceptual problems it raises. The threshold relates to inequality and ‘economic distance’ rather than need. Though it was initially intended to be simple and comprehensible, the indicator causes considerable confusion, and successive refinements, including adjustments for disposable income, housing costs and equivalence, have limited the accessibility and use of the figures. Referring to median earnings would be a simpler, more practical approach.”

Poverty, democratic governance and poverty reduction strategies

I have given a presentation today at an International Symposium in Istanbul, Turkey, organised by Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakif University and Sosyal Politikalar Dernegi.  The argument was this:

The Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers have become a significant experiment in world governance.  Poverty is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon, and responses to poverty need to be adapt to a wide range of circumstances.  In the belief that deliberative democracy is the route to prosperity, international organisations have directed governments around the world to undertake a process of strategic planning, based on participative development and negotiation of policy with stakeholders. However, the emphasis in the PRSPs seems to have fallen more on the methods they use than the substance of the strategies.  Democracy is not valued only for its process; it matters what it achieves.   If PRSPs are to help the poor, they need to extend their focus, moving beyond procedural issues towards substantive policies that stand to benefit the poor.

Here is a copy of the slides and a copy of the paper.

Symposium in Istanbul

Musical chairs

David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative party, is reported this week as saying: “We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it’s as if these things — obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction — are purely external events like a plague or bad weather. Of course, circumstances — where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school and the choices your parents make — have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices people make.” In one sense, this has to be true. However, the sentiment Cameron is expressing invites condemnation of the poor, and for that reason it should be treated with great caution. Poor people do not have the choice of avoiding poverty; the nature of poverty is that it limits choices. Condemning people with very little choice for making the wrong decisions seems peculiarly callous.

I should explain the title of this comment, for the enlightenment of those who haven’t had the benefit of a merciless British education. “Musical chairs” is a children’s game. There are fewer chairs than children, the children run round the chairs in a circle, and when the music stops, they have to try to sit down. Those who do not sit down in time are out. Now of course it is true that those children who sit down tend to be those who are faster, bigger or quicker. The children who hesitate tend to have made the wrong choice, and they have probably reacted more slowly. But it would be ridiculous to blame the children who lose; the game has been designed that way. The same is true of poverty. People who lose out are often less well qualified, less connected, or slower. They may have flaws of character; they may not have responded to opportunities; they may have made the wrong choices. It does not follow that their poverty is their fault. It is more important to ask whether society shouldn’t provide a few more chairs for people to sit on.

Tackling poverty: a response to the Scottish "Government Economic Strategy"

I submitted a response to the Government Economic Strategy: a copy is available here, in PDF format.

Having made the effort to respond to the consultation, I was interested to see how the report on the consultation would represent the answers.  I was surprised to see the statement that everyone had approved the government’s priorities, when I had written that I did not; so I went back to the original submissions and compared the comments with the report on the consultation.

There were three significant differences.  First, the report claimed that everyone had approved the priorities; it was clear that many, like myself,  did not.  Second, the government had asked whether it had the balance of prevention and response right, and the report claimed that it did.  I had argued against the fashion for preventative work, but I was very much in a minority; the majority of other respondents took the opposite view, and felt the government had put too little emphasis on prevention.  Third, the report claimed that respondents favoured the government taking a leading role.  Most respondents argued against that, believing that change had to come from the bottom up.