The Independent View: Why the CSJ are wrong on child poverty

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

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10 Comments

  • Rebecca Hanson 31st May '12 - 1:49pm

    I assume CSJ = Centre for Social Justice: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/

    This commentary seems to miss that there are many dual parent families in poverty where the parents have stayed together despite very serious issues which affect the children simply because neither has the money or confidence to leave.

    Dad may stay because he enjoys knocking off his daughters for example.

  • Rebecca, you’re absolutely right . And this again points to the problem of confusing the ‘problem’ of poverty with the ‘problem’ of divorce. Often, they’re entirely unrelated issues – something the Centre for Social Justice appears to have missed.

  • Poverty can just be about lack of income. Families be in poverty may not have other problems. Is everyone on a low income a drug addict, wife beater or whatever. Is poverty really the cause of mental health problems or are mental health problems the cause of some poverty.
    I think that a huge extent we have stigmatized people for simply lacking economic clout and because it is politically convenient on all sides. The Right can say the poor are just feckless, the Left that all social problems are the result of economic inequality. After all lots of students take drugs, Lots of people drink and eat too much. Why for instance when there is talk of an obesity epidemic do the reports always point cameras at housing estates, when their are plenty of corpulent people on TV and in parliament. Plenty of professioalss have been caught doing very bad things. In truth the poor have their financial situation worsened by the the rich in all sorts of ways from insurance rates, ro job insecurity to energy prices .

  • Richard Dean 31st May '12 - 3:49pm

    The CSJ seem to be focussing, not on money poverty, but on support-for-growing poverty. Of course the two are related but not the same. Indeed, some poorer parents can be a lot better at supporting their children than some of the richer ones – those who are focussed more on their own standing and wealth.

    So my question is – what kind of poverty is being talked about? Are different groups talking if different things?

    My impression is that family breakup can indeed reduce the emotional and developmental support that children receive, partly because the parents have to spend significant energy on their own issues. Addiction or substance abuse can also be a reason why children in a household end up getting less support than they need.

    I don’t understand what is meant by “we all anecdotally know of superbly paid industries fuelled by high functioning drug and alcohol dependent workers”. Is this referring to the financial services sector? Drug smuggling is of course a huge industry too.

  • Tony Dawson 31st May '12 - 4:12pm

    The people who appear to me to be ‘confused’ are the posters who do not seem to understand what the CSJ are saying here. They are saying that ‘poverty’ is not to be measured entirely by financial wealth , ie poverty is the lack of a number of important things, of which money is but one, and they are not saying that factors such as divorce, drug use, bad parenting, have a high correlation with financial poverty: indeed if they did there would be no point in using these other indicators (presumably with a weighting in a formula) to determine poverty as the same people would be identified whether you used the ‘old’ or ‘new’ measures.

  • I was talkomg rich as in organisations and not really about individual wealth, badly phrased I admit.

  • Grammar Police 31st May '12 - 11:51pm

    @ Rys “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.”

    Do you think this is what the Coalition is intending to do? If so, why do you think this is the case (both what evidence, and what motive)?

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