Why March really was miserable for child poverty

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It’s been an awful month for UK child poverty but Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has published some rather questionable claims made about the way we measure and use child poverty statistics.

CPAG analysis revealed that the cuts made to universal credit help for low income families will leave couples with children £960 a year worse, the Budget studiously avoided any mention of poverty and child poverty rose to 4 million, with new projections from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggesting it is set to hit 5.1 million by 2022. Miserable March.

CSJ’s response was to attack the child poverty figures by saying ‘… while this is not fake news, it is misleading news”.

It says: “First, [they are] inaccurate. If the economy moves into recession, the measure says child poverty goes down”.

There are two very obvious reasons why this is plain wrong.

First, the child poverty figures are not one measure. They are a suite of four measures. Two of which - absolute poverty and material deprivation – capture significant falls in living standards for children in the poorest households.

Second, there is no iron law of nature that says, in a recession, relative child poverty - children living in households with incomes far below typical incomes - must always fall. Relative child poverty fell or did not rise in the economic downturn because governments (including the coalition, initially) acted to protect benefits at a time when median incomes were dropping.

It says: “Second, it focuses attention on the wrong things.” That it leads to politicians focusing their resources on moving people just below the poverty to over it and moving out of poverty doesn’t mean a life has been transformed.

The idea that previous governments ‘gamed’ the poverty target (as if such precision were possible) was comprehensively dismantled by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which said, in effect, that even with a considerably higher or lower poverty line, poverty fell between 1998 and 2010 as families across a wide income spectrum became better off. ‘Gaming’ did not happen. That IFS report is not new, yet this claim keeps being made without any evidence to back it up.

The progress made on child poverty before the economic downturn was actually down to the kind of broad approach - featuring improved parental employment and better childcare help, for example, as well as financial support for children - that CPAG and other charities insisted upon.

Does moving out of poverty change lives? The LSE’s Kerry Cooper and Kitty Stewart looked at 34 high quality studies which isolated the effect of income and concluded: “Low income affects direct measures of children’s well-being and development, including their cognitive ability, achievement and engagement in school, anxiety levels and behaviour. The evidence on cognitive development and school achievement was the clearest and most common, followed by that on social and behavioural development.”

You could say the CSJ’s line on the child poverty measures has ‘evolved’ over the years. In 2006, it published a report noting:

“Relative poverty rates, however, grew rapidly during the 1980s. The growth of child poverty on the relative measure was particularly alarming, with a rate of 12% in 1979 rising to 27% by 1992. Whether one wants to call it poverty or not, this huge increase in income inequality has been rightly described as “one of the biggest social changes in Britain since the Second World War.” [Emphasis added]

A decade ago the significance of children growing up in low income families was understood right across the political spectrum.

What’s changed?