Child poverty definition loses income measure

2 July 2015, 19:59   By Samantha Smith

CHILD poverty will no longer be measured by a family's income level, but by factors including whether a household has work, and educational achievements.

child poverty
Credit: Ralf Geithe/

A child was previously considered to be in poverty if their household's income was less than 60% of the national median.

But that definition lead to anomalies like child poverty apparently falling during the recession, even though affected families were no better off.

Critics say the new definition is a case of attempting to move the goalposts, and that by ignoring the role of money the new definition misses the point.

"Poverty is a priority"

The new definition is part of the Government's work to replace the Child Poverty Act 2010, which included the ambitious target to eradicate child poverty completely by 2020.

But while they're scrapping both the Act and that target, they say getting rid of child poverty "is an absolute priority".

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that, according to the old definition - based on a threshold of 60% of the national median income - child poverty is at its lowest point in years.

The Government's own data is slightly more modest, suggesting the number is unchanged at 2.3 million.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith says he has "consistently argued that it is not enough to tackle the symptoms without also tackling the underlying causes".

So to that end, the "new and strengthened approach" will consider educational attainments at age 16, and the proportion of children living in workless homes.

The Government also intend to create a series of measures based on other causes and symptoms of poverty, such as family breakdown, debt, and addiction.

The problem with percentages

There's no doubt that the definition of child poverty that's being replaced is flawed.

Being based on a percentage of an average, the threshold will move up and down depending on what's happening with the rest of the economy.

The actual amount of money a household will have to live on won't change - but if national earnings go up, so does the 60% threshold, resulting in more families being classed as in poverty.

And when the recession pushed the average income down, the number of households defined as being in poverty dropped - despite them having no more money to live on than before.

Which factors?

The Child Poverty and Social Mobility Commission has long argued "that a more rounded way of measuring poverty - taking greater account of causal risk factors - is sensible".

In his response to the Government, chair of the commission Alan Milburn pointed out that "the life chances of children, the poorest especially, depend on many things including good parenting, childcare, education and employment."

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation echo this point, saying they "welcome the addition of new indicators because poverty is complex".

But there's widespread disbelief that the Government seem to want to tackle poverty "without acknowledging the most obvious symptom... lack of money," as Mr Milburn puts it.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation also point to the fact that the number of families in poverty where one or both parents are in work now outnumber poor families where no one works for the first time.

The Foundation's chief executive, Julia Unwin, says missing out families where people work but have low incomes, will "damage children's lives now and prospects for the future."

Meanwhile Labour MP Frank Field sounded a warning note about focusing on educational attainment at age 16, saying "we know life chances are determined before children enter school."

A report from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) last year backed this up, citing research that suggests children from the poorest fifth of families are already struggling developmentally compared to those from wealthier families.

Children aged three are half as likely to be read to every day as those from the wealthiest fifth, and four-year-olds from poorer homes can have a vocabulary of up to a year behind their better off counterparts.

The discrepancies continue as they grow older, with fewer than half of children from poorer backgrounds getting the top grades at GCSE, compared to 71% of children from better off families.

Fiona Weir of the charity for single parent families, Gingerbread, also takes exception to the lack of emphasis on income - and says focusing on the make up of a family is unhelpful:

"We know that in many other countries, whether or not a child is growing up in a single parent... makes little difference to their chances of falling into poverty."

'Proper focus'

So what would be a better way to define poverty, and reduce it effectively?

The Child Poverty Action Group's Alison Garnham says the reason the previous Act gained so much support was that it took a broad approach, looking at "jobs and skills, health and education, home and communities as well as direct financial support to families."

Housing and welfare reform have been highlighted, with organisations demanding an end to benefit cuts that disproportionately affect those on lower incomes and the working poor, and far more affordable housing.

Gingerbread add to that a call for measures that will tackle "unaffordable childcare, low levels of maternal employment and poor wages".

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation want income brought back into the equation, "ideally linked to a cost of living measure, to give a proper focus on families' real ability to afford the basics of life in a decent society."

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