Our take on the new child poverty statistics

New statistics on child poverty released today suggest that there has been a considerable fall in the number of young people living in poverty across the UK. 

However, the opening line in the BBC’s coverage of the news presents a slightly confusing message at first, stating that “The number of children living in poverty in the UK fell by 300,000 last year as household incomes dropped“.  How can this be?  Incomes have fallen, but so has the number of children living in poverty.  It seems counterintuitive.

The issue lies with the unhelpful definition of what constitutes poverty and the emphasis on considering poverty as a relative issue (i.e. someone is in poverty if they have x amount less than someone else) rather than in absolute terms (i.e. someone is in poverty if they don’t have a, b or c).

The indicator usually used to define child poverty, and the one that has been used for these latest figures, is based on the number of children living in homes with 60% less than the median UK income (the median is the middle figure in a set of numbers).  So when median incomes fall, as we have seen in recent times, we can have a situation where fewer households fall below this threshold.  As the BBC article helpfully explains, the “median income for 2010-2011 was £419 a week, down from £432 the year before.  As a result, the level of household income which defines “in poverty” fell from £259, in 2009-2010, to £251 a week, the following year.”  This is why there are fewer children regarded as living in poverty; if median incomes fall, so does the poverty line.

Considering poverty as a relative rather than absolute measure is a contentious issue and has generated much discussion in the past.  It does seem an unhelpful approach; taking it to the extreme, if all household incomes in the country fell to £50 per week then by this logic the number of children living in poverty would be zero. However, this runs contradictory to the reality that, in absolute terms, poverty levels would be significantly higher than they are now with median incomes of £419 per week.

The government recognises the limitations of this measure and has stated that it wants to look at alternative indicators.  The Observatory will be working with colleagues from the Business Intelligence (Children’s) team to help to inform a refresh of the Warwickshire Child Poverty Strategy during the summer and we will be examining a broad range of measures to help generate a more representative picture of the issues locally.

It is important that agencies and practitioners do not get distracted by definitions of poverty to the degree that it prevents them from taking action to reduce the problems.   But, this is the Observatory’s blog so we’re allowed to give these issues some thought!  Let us know if you have any views on how child poverty can be effectively assessed and what you think to the ‘relative versus absolute’ debate.

6 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Anna Mckann and commented:
    A fantastic analysis of the current state of the UK

  2. A really interesting read Spencer, which shows statistics should not be taken at face value and that the task of tackling child poverty in Warwickshire still has a long way to go.

  3. Well written and informative, Spencer, and gives a greater insight than a soundbite headline ever could.

  4. […] relative measure of poverty (so if incomes fall, the number of children in poverty fall – see previous blog) and as well as this, the impact of proposed welfare reform on families and children may push more […]

  5. […] looked at the relative nature of the indicator used to define child poverty in a previous blog post too which provides some additional context around the relative vs absolute […]

  6. […] a previous blog post, we’ve looked at the relative nature of this definition of child poverty. We saw incomes fall […]

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