Child poverty in Britain – redefine it, or reduce it?

INGRID WOLFE, Open Democracy |

The UK government claims today that current measures of child poverty fail to tackle the “root causes of poverty. . . worklessness, educational failure and family breakdown”. A paediatrician asks: what’s really behind the urge to redefine? 

“Life change is the key to moving people out of poverty by addressing the issues that hold some families back,” claimed work and pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith today. Launching a consultation on “better measurements” of child poverty at a children’s centre in Deptford, South East London, he said: “Current relative income measure by itself is not providing an accurate picture of child poverty.”

Iain Duncan Smith is right when he says that child poverty is about more than household income. He is wrong, however, to try to redefine child poverty. Of course poverty is about more than income. But income is a crucial factor. The stark reality is that you need to ensure sufficient money is available to improve children’s life chances.

There seems to be a concerted effort in government to shift the debate around child poverty – by arguing that poverty is about more than income, and by claiming that defining poverty as a percentage below median income doesn’t make sense.

Why might the government be trying to alter the way we think about, and measure, poverty?

One reason might be that, according to the current measurement system, after years of progress, child poverty is set to rise dramatically.

Why poverty definitions matter

Currently, the UK and EU use 60 per cent of the median household income as the poverty threshold. It is one of many useful definitions, and there are distinct advantages in sticking to this one. It has been used for a long time, so is helpful for tracking what’s happening; it is used in many places, so it is useful for comparing how well the UK performs compared with others. By both sets of comparisons, our children are getting poorer.

The Poverty and Social Exclusion partnership has a helpful explanation of median and mean poverty, why these definitions matter, and how Frank Field (who chaired a recent independent review into poverty) was wrong to argue that using a percentage of median poverty as a target doesn’t work.

Poverty is a matter of life and death

Growing up in poverty can affect every aspect of a child’s life, and the effects can last through generations.

Child health is directly related to poverty. This is the social gradient of health. Poor children suffer worse health than their richer peers. Many dimensions of health and wellbeing are strongly affected by poverty. Here are just a few:

  • – Birthweight: babies born into the most deprived families have the lowest birthweights. And poor children continue to grow more slowly as they get older.
  • – Chronic illnesses such as asthma, and disabilities such as cerebral palsy, are more common in children who live with social and economic disadvantages.
  • – Acute illnesses, such as pneumonia, are more common among poor children, and are more likely to lead to hospital admission, compared with their well-off peers.
  • – Mental disorders and behavioural disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and signs of social distress including self-harm and antisocial behaviour are also strongly affected by poverty. To make matters worse, child maltreatment — abuse — is commoner in families who suffer financial strain.
  • – Death in the first few days and weeks of life (perinatal mortality) is more common in babies from poor families. Infant mortality too (deaths up to 1 year). In fact, at all ages the risk of death is higher the poorer you are. A baby in a family whose income is below £60 per week has a nearly ten times higher risk of Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy than a baby whose family early more than £200 per week.

Poverty matters – to children’s lives, and deaths. This is why the debate about measuring poverty matters so much. It is also deeply political.

There are more than 3.6 million children living in poverty in the UK. One out of every four children is poor, and more — up to 70 per cent – in some areas. If we continue along the same path, with the same policies, child poverty is expected to rise. There could be 4.2 million poor children in Britain by 2020.*

The government has made a commitment, enshrined in law, to reducing child poverty – the Child Poverty Act 2010. Although significant progress has been made over the last decade, things are now set to worsen considerably. The global economic crisis threatens health and wellbeing. But governments do have choices. Social policy can alleviate some of the most dire consequences of poverty. But it requires investment, and political will.

The meaning of poverty

Understanding the meaning and experience of poverty is hard. Money matters, but so does the distribution of resources. Social capital and family structures are important. Quality of life is about much more than income. But there is no escaping the fact that poverty affects every aspect of children’s lives. We can argue about how to measure poverty, and indeed there are many different ways to do so.

Clearly it is right to look beyond income and consider other aspects of poverty. But it need not be one or the other.

Save the Children have called for other indicators to be included in the Child Poverty Act for example parental employment, housing, and childcare, recognising that although income is central, it is one of the many things that matters in helping to improve children’s life chances.

There is no need to redefine poverty — instead we should strengthen our efforts to reduce child poverty.

What can you do? The government is asking for your views: Tell them!