The Independent View: The determinants of child poverty

End child pverty now - Some rights reserved by RMLondonWhat do the public think are the key determinants of child poverty? New DWP polling released last week aimed to answer this question, but in fact proved anything but conclusive.

Asked to choose four out of a possible eleven factors that should be regarded as important when deciding if a child is growing up in poverty, respondents’ answers were spread remarkably evenly across the board. All the factors – from low income to parental disability, poor housing conditions to debt – were regarded as at least ‘quite important’ by 94 to 96 per cent of the sample. The sole exception was low parental skill level, which even so, was still regarded as important by a significant 87 per cent of respondents.

Given the homogeneity of the results, one would think this exercise would simply be filed as a bit on the dull side. But in fact, there is little chance that the polling will be relegated to some dusty shelf. Instead, these results, along with those from a very similar poll undertaken in January this year, are being treated by government as a key – and possibly decisive – input into its recent public consultation on measuring child poverty.

It is vital to hear from people living in poverty about their experience: this lies within their own knowledge and allows us to understand their lives better. But in its consultation document, the government made clear that what it wants to do is develop a new measure of child poverty that resonates with public perceptions of poverty. This ambition raises at least two very interesting questions.

First, given that measurement of a complex phenomenon such as poverty is technically demanding, to what extent should non-expert voices be given weight over and above those of specialists? As the Royal Statistical Society asserted in its own submission to the consultation, ‘current definition(s) of poverty … are the product of valid social science procedure. Any replacement would need to be subject to the same degree of rigour’.

Second, as the most recent British Social Attitudes survey makes clear, public opinion is, at least to some degree, fomented by government statements. As a result, we risk finding ourselves in a situation where (dis)information about the causes of child poverty begins to be used to legitimate government policy, once it has been laundered through the device of a public opinion poll.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the vexed issue of child poverty and parental addiction. References to an intimate relationship between the two conditions are commonplace in government speeches, yet the evidence for this link is sorely lacking. In fact, the government had to admit recently in response to a parliamentary question that it had no information on the number of children living in poverty with an addicted parent. Worryingly, it then proceeded to cite its own January public polling as confirmation that addiction is a significant cause of child poverty.

While public opinion has a huge bearing on many critical questions, it is evidence and sound methodology that the government should find most persuasive as they proceed to analyse the results of this consultation. And as for this polling? Let’s see it for what it is: a reflection of popular perceptions that tell us little about the reality of poverty, and even less about how to measure it.

* Alison Garnham is Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group.

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4 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 19th Mar '13 - 5:20pm

    (1) Let us be very clear. Poverty is about not having enough money to cope with the circumstances in which you are living. That is what the word means.

    (2) There are many other things that determine the health and welfare and quality of life of a child – such as the scholl they go to and how well it provides for their needs. These are very important. But they are not part of whether that child is living in poverty. They are a different thing and confusing and combining them does nothing to help our analysis.

    (3) People in poverty, children or otherwise, don’t care about complex debates on the meaning of povery. What they care about is whether they can cope with their weekly bills.

    The way to end poverty is to increase the income of the poorest people (by whatever means). The present government is doing the opposite and as Liberals we should be ashamed of that fact.

    Tony Greaves

  • Stephen Donnelly 19th Mar '13 - 5:55pm

    The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary offers as a definition of poverty; ‘the condition of having little or no wealth’; and also ‘relative lack of money or material possessions’.

    The public consultation launched by the government is an attempt to claim that we are meeting the pledge to eliminate child poverty, by redefining the meaning of child poverty. It would be much better to deal with the central questions head on rather than frame the debate in this way.

  • Helen Dudden 20th Mar '13 - 9:00am

    I think that a child can be suffering in many ways with poverty, and the lack of appropriate care, for the well being of that child. This could be not enough income.

    A decent place to live that is warm and safe, children in poverty don’t often have this. Security in that home, enough to eat is a key factor, we had free milk when I was at school, the mid day lunch was very balanced, and provided us with fuel to learn. We never knew who paid, and did not pay for that lunch. No social prejudiced.

    I, also believe in the need to have both parents when ever possible, not may be in the true sense after a breakdown in a relationship, but the access to both parents. We saw the sadness very recently of an MP, and the destruction of his family for all to see.

    If the law permits that access then it should be happening, family ties are important.

    That in itself is not a healthy issues for any children involved. This too, is a form of poverty ,of maybe, emotional poverty.

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