Rikki Dean argues that the current proposals to develop measures that downplay income and material deprivation in favour of family breakdown and addiction are based on an incoherent conception of poverty that conflates child poverty with child well-being. To argue that family breakdown and addiction are part of the definition of poverty is indicative of prejudice towards the poor. Moreover, the simple truth is that there is little correlation between family structures and poverty.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), backed by think-tanks such as the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and Policy Exchange, is advocating a new approach to the measurement of child poverty in the UK. They claim that they wish to broaden the definition of poverty by including indicators on family breakdown and addiction and downplaying the importance of low-income in how we measure child poverty. Ruth Lupton’s recent blog has outlined some of the methodological difficulties of this approach. This article argues that far from enriching our understanding of child poverty the advocates of this approach are doing much to confuse matters.
Despite frequent claims from the critics of the existing poverty measures that they are in some way arbitrary, in fact, they are the product of over a 100 years of social research, beginning with Seebohm Rowntree’s pioneering studies at the turn of the 20th Century. This research – arguably one of the most successful collaborations between social reformers, NGOs, academics, politicians and civil servants (and, in more recent studies, members of the public) in the social sciences – has endeavoured to rigorously define what we mean when we talk about poverty, then operationalise this into an appropriate measure. One result of this has been the discovery that poverty is a very tricky concept to both define and measure. However, a relatively uncontroversial definition of poverty is “exclusion from the life of society owing to lack of resources”. The current measures attempt to operationalise this definition by measuring low-income and material deprivation. The apparent lack of engagement with this voluminous literature by the critics of the current measures is frankly astonishing. In contrast, their proposals for new measures appear to be based on little more than a hunch and an opinion poll.
The consequence is that it is impossible to derive what definition of poverty is being employed by those who advocate a new type of measure. The lack of analytical rigour in their conception of poverty can be demonstrated with reference to the following anecdote from a recent article by CSJ Director, Christian Guy, entitled ‘It’s not all money, money, money’:
Francesca’s husband died from a brain haemorrhage three years earlier. A recovering alcoholic with a history of mental health problems, she would recall vividly how during her most troubled moments with addiction she regularly failed to look after her children. She said the children’s homework was regularly left undone, school uniforms remained unwashed for days and she gave her children little support or encouragement.
To the average person, Francesca’s children were living in poverty. To the government? No. The payments she received from her husband’s life insurance and private pensions combined with child benefit pushed her well beyond the poverty measure.
Though he argues that “income matters and we need to measure it”, the anecdote clearly implies otherwise; income level is incidental to the ‘poverty’ being experienced by Francesca’s children, which is instead defined by parental neglect as a consequence of single-parenthood, addiction and mental health issues. Of course, parental neglect has significant ramifications for a child’s well-being (though it should be noted that single parenthood/addiction/etc. do not necessarily lead to neglect, so any measure of child well-being should measure it directly, rather than simply assume well-being from family circumstances). However, to argue neglect is more important than low-income in measuring whether a child is experiencing poverty is emotive nonsense.
This can be illustrated with a simple hypothetical example. Imagine Polly. Polly is also a widow recovering from substance misuse and mental health problems and her children have been subject to the same neglect as Francesca’s. Polly’s husband, however, was a high-flying corporate lawyer and his pension and life insurance is sufficient to keep them living in their five bedroom house in Kensington without any financial concerns. The uniforms that go unwashed are those for an exclusive, fee-paying private school.
It is doubtful that anyone would argue that Polly’s children are growing up in poverty. Yet the neglect that they experience is identical to that experienced by Francesca’s children. The reason Francesca’s children appear to be ‘poor’ while Polly’s do not is that in the hypothetical example it is made explicit that lack of material resources is not a factor. It is lack of material resources and not neglect that is the determinant factor of whether someone is experiencing poverty according to our common sense understanding of what poverty is.
An indicator of the absurdity of arguing that family breakdown is a more important consideration than access to material resources in determining whether someone is living in poverty is that, using this definition, we may have to start counting some of the UK Royal Family as having grown up in poverty, given the alleged dysfunctional family relationships that some of our prominent princes and princesses have experienced. To argue that family breakdown and addiction are part of the definition of poverty is indicative of prejudice towards the poor. It assumes these are intrinsic features of the experience of poverty when this is not borne out by empirical evidence. The simple truth, as Jonathon Bradshaw and the PSE team have noted, is that there is little correlation between family structures and poverty (in some countries none at all). Family breakdown can occur at all points on the income spectrum and the majority of children living in poverty live with two parents. Similarly, the wealthy as well as the poor can be addicts, and most poor people are not addicts; according to Drugscope, alcohol consumption is higher amongst those on higher incomes and the vast majority of poor people are not addicts. Family breakdown and addiction, therefore, are not useful indicators of child poverty.
We have a wealth of rigorous social research demonstrating that access to material resources is integral in the public understanding of what constitutes poverty. The current proposals to develop measures that downplay income and material deprivation in favour of family breakdown and addiction are based on an incoherent conception of poverty that conflates child poverty with child well-being. A measure based on such a conception may be multidimensional, but it will capture something other than child poverty as it is commonly understood.
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Rikki Dean is a doctoral student in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics. His research explores the role of public participation in the policy process. He tweets at @Rikki_Dean.