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Numbers, measures and listening to UK parents and children

Numbers are powerful. They describe, they explain and occasionally they inspire or dismay.

UNICEF’s 12th report card describes the situation of children in rich countries in the wake of the recession. About 76.5 million children live in poverty in 41 EU and OECD countries.

Meanwhile two-fifths of children in the UK were living in poverty in 2012, up by 1.6% since 2008. That leaves the UK sitting 16th out of 41 countries in terms of overall rates of child poverty. And the UK is 15th in the increase in child poverty between 2008 and 2012. These are stark numbers.

(photo: Lucia Zoro/Save the Children)

But the official UK numbers are somewhat lower. Officially just under one-fifth of children lived in poverty in the UK in 2012, but this is in part because UNICEF benchmarks the child poverty rates in 2008, while the official UK statistics benchmark the poverty rates against 2010.

Writing this brings on a deep, wearying sense of déjà vu. Many a report, blog post, tweet, even utterance, has had to position itself within a debate that has embroiled the UK since at least 2012: what is an appropriate measure of child poverty?

I could argue here about how UNICEF measured poverty but it strikes me that this is one of the things that dismays me most about numbers. The UNICEF report should be enough to inspire action, and shifting the line ten percentile points up or down will still leave an unacceptable number of children living in poverty (for our analysis of child poverty in the UK see A Fair Start for Every Child).

With numbers there’s always an incitement to argue about methods, as if that alone might solve the problems they describe.

But poverty is a reality for many parents and children in the UK today. Recently we spoke to nine parents about their experiences of living on a low income. (This was to inform our response to a consultation on the national minimum wage by the Living Wage Commission).

Of course, nine families is a very small number: it isn’t representative and we can’t generalise about the population. But what we can do is listen to these parents and learn how they put their children at the centre of their lives, how they try to provide the best possible chances for their children, and how they’re actively dealing with increasingly challenging circumstances by changing habits and cutting back on their own needs.

We can also listen to parents to understand how they can be best supported in providing the best chances for their children: the Living Wage, expanding provision of free childcare, and ensuring school uniforms are affordable are all viable strategies to support parents and children. (For an example of how listening to parents can inform policy, see our report Give Us a Hand with Childcare).

Numbers on poverty are powerful and measures help us understand them. But they need to be balanced with listening to parents and children. Otherwise we risk reducing poverty to a number, reducing solutions to poverty to measurement, and abstracting poverty from the reality of many parents and children today.

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