While it is true that poverty is often associated with a range of other Bad Things, from stressed out families to poor grades at school and that causation can work both ways, this does not mean that they are the exact same problems.
But when the CSJ proposed new measures of child poverty, they induced exactly this sort of confusion. Below are just two examples:
1. Unstable family structure.
The CSJ suggests that one of the new measures of child poverty should be the percentage of children growing up in married households. However, many rich families get divorced, as do many poor families. Whether you think this is a Bad Thing or not depends on your orientation, but poverty does not mean family breakdown.
In fact, the majority of poor children live in “in tact” families. 49% of children living below the poverty line already live in married or civil partnered households. A further 15% live in families that are cohabiting couples, while only 37% of poor children live in single parent households.
And while the risks of poverty are higher for children living in single parent households, where most poor children still live in households with two parents, child poverty cannot be measured as living in a divorced household.
However, there is a theory that families experiencing poverty are more likely to get divorced partly because their lack of money causes additional relationship stress and this causes family breakdown. The ‘family stress model’ suggests that the experience of poverty is one of the more important factors that can put severe strains on relationships, and can bring about family dysfunction and breakdown. During the recession, divorce rates have increased suggesting that lowered incomes could indeed lead to family breakdowns.
However to imply that they are the same thing, or more explicitly, to suggest that the percentage of children growing up in married households should be a measure of poverty, is profoundly confused. Put simply, child poverty is not growing up in a divorced household.
2. Addiction or substance abuse in the household
While families with drug or alcohol dependency problems are probably more likely to be poor as they may be less able to work, more likely to live on benefits and may incur sanctions, one estimate suggests that just 2.7 per cent of couples with children include an alcohol dependent parent, and just 0.9 per cent include a drug dependent parent (see Bell and Strelitz), despite this 29 percent of children live below the poverty line
And in the absence again of accurate statistics, we all anecdotally know of superbly paid industries fuelled by high functioning drug and alcohol dependent workers. Substance abuse is not exactly the same thing as poverty.
And the list goes on for the CSJ’s seven other proposed measures of poverty. Poor parenting… happens in filthy rich households too. Poor mental health… many depressed parents work in perfectly paid jobs and live well above the poverty line. And so it goes.
Beyond confusing the concept of poverty with its measurement, the CSJ report is methodologically sloppy and flawed in a number of other ways. For example, they claim that the relative income target in the Child Poverty Act is “methodologically flawed” and “almost impossible to achieve”. As we have argued on our own blog, this is nonsense, and can only stem from a failure to understand the difference between the median income (the middle income) and the mean income (the average income). It is possible for every household currently below the poverty line to move above it without the poverty line itself being moved, and other countries have already met the 2020 targets. If they can, so can we.
This sort of ‘rethinking child poverty’ does little more than provide cover for the Coalition to keep cutting away at the incomes of poor families, while claiming to champion their cause.
* Rys Farthing is a senior policy and research officer at the Child Poverty Action Group