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Income remains crucial in measuring child poverty

by Graham Whitham, UK Poverty Advisor, Save the Children

The Government launched their consultation on child poverty measurement last Thursday. The consultation criticises the current income measures of poverty set out in the Child Poverty Act, in particular the ‘headline’ and internationally recognised relative measure. It argues that a broader measure of child poverty is needed that captures different aspects of the ‘lived experience’ of poverty.

The view that we need a full and broad understanding on child poverty is to be welcomed. We know from our programmes that children need to live in homes with decent family incomes but they also need access to good early years services and good schools and health services.

However, worryingly the consultation fails to recognise the progress made in reducing relative and absolute poverty and material deprivation amongst children in the UK over the last 15 years nor does it reflect the broad approach to tackling child poverty set out in the Act.

The consultation proposes a multi-dimensional composite measure of child poverty that includes the following:

  • Income and material deprivation
  • Worklessness
  • Unmanagable debt
  • Poor housing
  • Parental skill level
  • Access to quality education
  • Family stability
  • Parental health

Broadly speaking these are all sensible areas to focus on when trying to understand the experience of children living in poverty. Consideration of these areas in respect of child poverty strategies, whether at a local or national level, is nothing new.

They broadly reflect the basket of indicators set out by the Child Poverty Unit to support the development of local child poverty strategies and the additional indicators set out in the government’s 2011 Child Poverty Strategy.

However we would be concerned by moves to replace the current measures in the Act with a new multi-dimensional measure.  Poverty is complex and no one measure or set or measures are ever likely to be perfect.

We know that income doesn’t tell us everything but nor is it sensible to dilute or undermine the importance of income. The main relative income measure is the best we’ve got and that, along with the three income and material deprivation measures in the Act, are effective at driving policy in the right way.

With all the signs pointing to large increases in child poverty in the coming years (expected to rise by 800,000 between now and 2020 according to the IFS) and more and more families facing acute hardship it is action we need, not another lengthy consultation.

We need government to be clear that they are committed to retaining the four income and material deprivation targets set out in the Child Poverty Act and we need them to be clear that raising family income, and therefore the living standards of children across the UK, is their primary objective when it comes to tackling child poverty.

With the fight against child poverty at such a crucial point we need the government to be clear about what they’re proposing. Does government intend to retain and work towards the targets set out in the Child Poverty Act or do they want to replace those targets with the new composite multi-dimensional measures set out in the consultation?

Further information:

Save the Children’s report on the importance of relative income and income more broadly in tackling child poverty in the UK is set out here: http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/resources/online-library/ending-child-poverty-importance-income-measuring-and-tackling-child-poverty

The consultation document can be found here: https://www.education.gov.uk/aboutdfe/departmentalinformation/consultations/a00216896/measuring-child-poverty

The consultation ends on 15 February 2013

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