Poverty is multi-dimensional, so multiple measures are required to track it, writes Katie Schmuecker. A new report published today by JRF looks at the Minimum Income Standard, a measure based on what ordinary members of the public think is required for a minimum, but socially acceptable, standard of living, to see what is really happening to living standards among those on low incomes. One group that has seen a marked deterioration in their fortunes is families with children.
All political parties have stated their commitment to tackling child poverty in recent years, but it is difficult to get on with the task in hand at a time when the debate about how to measure child poverty remains unsettled. While the government published proposals for a new child poverty measure it is yet to respond to the subsequent consultation, and if we don’t know what we’re measuring how can we know if we’re succeeding?
There are well documented problems with the main official measure of child poverty, which is the number children living in households with less than 60% of median income. At a time when average income has been falling, so too has the rate of child poverty according to this measure; this seems counterintuitive during a period of economic hardship and austerity.
On one hand this simply serves to underlines what many working in this space have always argued: poverty is multi-dimensional, so multiple measures are required to track it – something JRF has been doing for years through its Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion reports. On the other hand, it is troubling that the debate about how well we’re doing in tackling child poverty can get mired in statistical wrangles that leave many baffled.
A new report published today by JRF makes an important contribution to our efforts to monitor what is really happening to living standards among those on low incomes. Each year the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University produces the Minimum Income Standard (MIS) based on what ordinary members of the public think is required for a minimum, but socially acceptable, standard of living.
Their latest research analyses who is living below MIS, and trends over time. While not a measure of poverty as such, this report gives insight into which groups are struggling to make ends meet and whether the problem is getting worse or better. Importantly it is rooted in the public’s view of what is needed, rather than a measure of average income, which has proved volatile in recent years.
One group that has seen a marked deterioration in their fortunes is families with children. In the early part of the recession this group was relatively protected, as most families managed to hold on to some employment and increases in state support for low income families through tax credits planned prior to the recession were implemented. However, 2011 marked a turning point as state support to families was cut sharply and the number of families falling short of a decent standard of living increased sharply.
Lone parents offer a stark illustration to this story. 65% of lone parents lacked the income required for an acceptable standard of living in 2008/09, a figure that fell steadily reaching 60% by 2010/11, only to rise again sharply to 67% in 2011/12.
This grim tale not only underlines the importance of the child poverty strategy that the government is due to publish imminently, along with its response to the consultation on measurement. It also serves as a reminder of the direct impact policy decisions can have on the living standards of low income households.
In addition, such policy decisions must be considered in the broader context of what is happening to earnings and prices, as it is the interaction between these elements that determines living standards. In this sense, considering the number of households falling short of an adequate income captures the impact of these changes on living standards in a way that a relative income measure cannot.
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Katie Schmuecker is a policy and research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. She manages their research on the future of the UK labour market. She tweets at @KatieSchmuecker