By Graham Whitham
Another week, another story about high levels of poverty in the UK. This time from the Social Metrics Commission who have developed a new measure of poverty. You might understandably ask whether we needed a new measure of poverty but bear with me, this one has a backstory.
Back in 2010 the Labour Government passed the Child Poverty Act. It set in stone four child poverty reduction targets to be met in 2020/21. Fast-forward a few months and the incoming Coalition Government and think tanks such as Policy Exchange, set out concerns about the way in which poverty was being measured. The argument was that the previous government’s approach had been too narrow. Those making such arguments often undermined their position by referring to ‘the child poverty measure’, when in fact four measures had been adopted and sometimes by a simple failure to understand the difference between mean and median averages.
Things came to a head in 2012 when the Government published a poorly written consultation on child poverty measurement. It was rightly panned. The government had reached a dead-end; critical of the measures as set out in the Child Poverty Act, but unable to set out an adequate replacement.
Iain Duncan Smith scrapped the 2020 targets and, in their place, came a duty to report on levels of educational attainment and the number of children in workless households. Given that neither of these things are measures of child poverty, it didn’t exactly solve the problem of government having no meaningful measure or measures of poverty in place around which it could build a coherent strategy.
To overcome the impasse, former special adviser to IDS – Philippa Stroud – set up the Social Metrics Commission. She brought together a panel of experts to establish a new measure of poverty around which a consensus could
The results were published last week, showing more than 14 million people, including 4.5 million children, are living in poverty in the UK. The new measure does some things the measures in the 2010 Act don’t, for example taking into account savings as well as income and looking at household outgoings.
Whether this has all been worthwhile is another question. It is hoped that it will act as a catalyst for the Government to re-establish a meaningful agenda on poverty. Eight years have been wasted arguing about how poverty should be measured, and these arguments are part of the reason why there is a such a vacuum when it comes to government policy. Only radical steps to halt soaring child rates will have made the work of the Social Mobility Commission worth it.