It does happen here

Graham Whitham

Save the Children’s recent report It shouldn’t happen here set out the type of hardship and deprivation we must work towards ending for good, but eradicating relative child poverty must remain the end goal. No child in the UK should be living in poverty.

The experience of child poverty in 2012

It shouldn’t happen here
found that the financial pressure being felt by some low income families is forcing them to make hard choices between heating and eating. The findings were based on two large scale surveys, one of parents and one of children. The surveys found that some parents are cutting back on food so that their children don’t go hungry and that children in poverty are missing out on the things needed to have happy, healthy and fulfilled childhoods.

Perhaps the most worrying and shocking finding was the extent to which children are aware, despite the best efforts of parents, of the financial pressure their family is under and that it is, not surprisingly, children in poverty who are most likely to be affected by this. Over half of children in poverty (52 per cent) said that not having enough money makes their parents unhappy or stressed (compared to 38 per cent of children not in poverty).

Reacting to the crisis facing low income families

The report brings into focus key questions about what needs to happen to reduce child poverty, how child poverty should be measured and how to maintain a focus on reducing relative income poverty when so many families now appear to be experiencing types of hardship which many had thought we’d eradicated (on a large scale at least) in this country.

The report accompanied a fundraising appeal by Save the Children. Whilst Save the Children has worked in the UK for decades, the launch marks the first ever public fundraising drive specifically for the charity’s UK programme work. The charity also wants the government to take measures to protect children in poverty from further spending cuts, close the education attainment gap and tackle the scandal of in-work poverty.

The poverty measurement debate

The report launch triggered a debate about child poverty in the UK with some concentrating on child poverty measurement and criticisms in particular of the ‘headline’ relative income measure of child poverty which defines poverty as those living below 60 per cent of equivalised median incomes. The relative income measure attracts a range of criticisms. The measure isn’t perfect but some of those criticisms misunderstand the measure and place the role of it and the target to reduce child poverty to 10 per cent or less of all children by 2020 in the wrong context.

Whilst a debate about how child poverty is measured may seem something of a distraction it is crucial we have the debate on the right terms and recognise the role different measures and targets can have in directing policy towards certain ends. The relative income measure is not the only measure of child poverty. There are three other measures in the Child Poverty Act plus key building blocks around things like housing and neighbourhoods, requiring policy makers to focus on improving outcomes for children in these areas as well as tackling the problem that is common to all families in poverty – low income.

Relative poverty

Poverty in developed nations, including the UK, is often defined in terms of the living standards of society in general. That partly reflects the extent to which developed nations have been able to eradicate hunger, malnutrition and the spread of preventable disease. But the idea that poverty can be seen as a relative, as well as absolute, condition is not new. Adam Smith set out his view that poverty was relative in the Wealth of Nations:

“By necessities I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.”

In respect of child poverty, this is an important principle. All children and families should be equipped with the material resources required to participate fully in society so that they are able to access the full range of opportunities that society presents. This includes access to warm and decent homes, a healthy diet and educational opportunities.

Defending the relative income measure of child poverty

A criticism of the relative income measure has been that when median incomes fall (as they have done recently) child poverty can fall even if those in poverty haven’t been made any better off. It’s a relative measure. This is always a risk but no one is seriously suggesting that anyone would be happy with reducing child poverty purely by reductions in median incomes In any case, falls in median income are rare. Even in recessions there’s no guarantee that median incomes will fall. Rather than focus on year on year drops it is much more useful to look at trends. Child poverty fell considerably between 1999 and 2010 (relative child poverty by 1 million and absolute poverty was halved over the same period. The number of children experiencing material deprivation fell by 300,000 between 2005 and 2010).

Even when median incomes do fall, policy makers have a choice; to protect the incomes of the poorest or to let the incomes of the poorest fall in line with middle incomes. From an anti-poverty point of view protecting the poorest when recessions hit and spending cuts have to be made is crucial. However, the reaction to this challenge since 2008 has been mixed and recent cuts to social security will see, according to the Institute For Fiscal Studies, relative child poverty rise by 400,000 between now and 2015 and by 800,000 between now and 2020 (those who reject the relative measure outright should note that absolute poverty is also projected to rise considerably over the same period). Projecting changes in material deprivation are clearly less easy to do but we should concerned that this too will rise over the rest of the decade.

An arbitrary line?

The 60 per cent median is not an arbitrary line. It is the agreed and widely accepted poverty line across developed nations. The correlation between living below 60 per cent of median income is strong and to suggest, as some have done, that lifting households above the poverty line makes no difference ignores the almost immediate positive impact boosting household income can have on the well-being of people in that household.

It is wrong to dismiss the positive impact boosting the incomes of low income families can have. It can have an almost immediate impact on the well-being of children. Evidence shows us that low income families are more likely spend any extra money that comes into the household on their children. A boost in income can mean that, rather than having to get into debt to pay the electricity bill or having to go without food, families are able to react and cope with rising living costs and unexpected pressures on family finances. It makes it more likely that families can participate fully in society, affording the things that many families take for granted like access to the internet or days out.

Child poverty aspirations

So poverty isn’t just a problem if the poorest families in our country can’t afford the basics. But our report It shouldn’t  happen here found that all too often low income families in the UK, in 2012, are not able to meet essential living costs like energy bills, food and clothing. The survey backed up what we’d been hearing from the families we work with and what many other charities and stakeholders have been reporting. Families are now facing acute levels of hardship. What we need to do is shine a greater light on those types of experiences of poverty. Steps must be taken to stop this happening but that doesn’t mean the relative measure becomes irrelevant.

To conclude, the backdrop to our report wasn’t the on-going debate about how we should measure child poverty (something the government intends to consult on this autumn) but the increasingly anecdotal evidence we were picking up from the families we support of the ever worsening experience of poverty. No child in the UK in 2012 should be living in absolute poverty or experiencing material deprivation. But efforts to tackle child poverty must be more aspirational than merely ending hardship and deprivation. This would be a start but eradicating relative child poverty must remain the end goal. In any case, the solutions to these problems are often the same.

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