Last week the government announced its child poverty strategy but at the same time revealed that, after a year of consultation and consideration, it has still not been able to reach a conclusion on how to measure success. Ruth Lupton explains why the government should stick with the measures it has got.
Thanks to the Child Poverty Act of 2010, eradicating child poverty is a legislative commitment in the UK and one to which all the main political parties are committed. But what is child poverty, and how should we measure success?
Traditionally, the measure of child poverty has been the proportion of children living in households with less than 60% of the median income. This measure is not perfect. For one thing, it is a narrow, one-dimensional indicator which captures only some of the experience of growing up poor. For another, it less meaningful in times of economic shocks. When the median income falls suddenly, as in the recent recession, fewer people may be deemed ‘poor’, even though their own circumstances may not have changed. Relative measures make sense conceptually (what influences a child’s life chances is what they have relative to others in society), and they work well in times of stability. But they can make less sense in times of economic turbulence. That’s exactly why the current set of measures also includes changes in poverty measured against a fixed, real standard – a measure which has been particularly important in the years since the crisis started.
The coalition government’s response to this was to propose a new multi-dimensional measure, incorporating other elements of child impoverishment such as living in bad housing, being in a family suffering from unmanageable debt, and not having access to a good school. It has reiterated last week that the existing measure is ‘discredited’ and needs to be replaced. Yet a year after its consultation on the proposal, no agreement has yet been reached on an alternative.