What should we do about child poverty targets?
Iain Duncan Smith was on the Today Programme last week arguing for changing how we measure child poverty. His former think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, published a report wanting to scrap the headline poverty targets: that those living at 60 per cent less than the median income are living in a state of poverty.
It's a bad idea. While we can add new measures to the mix and broaden the debate, the relative measure is important to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
The CSJ criticises the measure on a few different counts. The most straightforward to discount is that it is 'statistically unachievable'. That is a simple confusion of the mean and the median. Not only is it statistically possible, many countries have substantially lower child poverty levels than us, and our target of 10 per cent. Denmark (measuring child poverty at 50 per cent of the median) has achieved only 3.7 per cent child poverty.
Another challenge to the targets is that all that is needed to achieved it is 'poverty plus a pound' – the child poverty measures have slightly lifted those at the threshold without making any serious difference to their lives. The evidence contradicts this. The IFS finds an improvement for those living at 43% of the median wage up. Using DWP data whether we measured child poverty at 50 or 70 per cent, the trend would be the same.
The criticism that the current target confuses poverty with inequality isn't quite right either. As it's measured to the median rather than the mean, increases in wealth of the top half have no impact. As Polly Toynbee points out, it would make no difference if Bill Gates moved here. But yes, the relative measure does make the argument that we need to consider what is usual or normal for people, and at what level individuals can no longer participate fully as citizens in society. David Cameron acknowledged this in 2006:
"We need to think of poverty in relative terms - the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted. So I want this message to go out loud and clear - the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty."
It's right that to talk meaningfully about poverty, we shouldn't only consider income. The CSJ's call to look at wider measures and non-material elements of poverty (addiction, family breakdown and so on) should be encouraged. While there is a measure in the Child Poverty Act to consider material deprivation, where there is evidence of a relationship between poverty and other factors, we should explore them. As the IFS pointed out, the coalition needs to be clear whether they consider these elements cause poverty, constitute poverty or are dimensions of wellbeing we should care about but with no straightforward relationship with poverty.
Of the more than 2 million children in poverty in the latest statistics, only 870,000 were in workless households. We need to still be concerned about the 1.4 million children in families where at least one parent is working. We need to encourage personal responsibility, but also address societal barriers to making work pay.
Trying to deal with non-material problems surrounding poverty doesn't mean a base level of income isn't also necessary for children to be able to participate normally in society. Not least because of the well-evidenced relationship between low income and poor life chances.
So what next for the child poverty agenda? We can't just tax and spend our way out of child poverty. Instead we should prioritise resources on three areas: Building a universal childcare system - countries with low child poverty levels are characterised by high female employment and affordable childcare. Ensuring families that work aren't in poverty because most children in poverty (62%) had at least one parent working. And where we do have money for income transfers, focus on the under fives, where the risk of slipping into poverty is highest and most damage is done.