By Sarah Coughlan
The intersection between social science and real life can often seem – even for those on the inside – vague, abstract and frankly unlikely a lot of the time. That is until a government starts to mess around with the way they measure a social phenomenon. That’s the kind of thing that has social scientists rubbing their hands together with glee as they enjoy a moment in the limelight. So, in a way we can be thankful that British Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith MP has decided, albeit against the expert opinions of the Children’s Commissioners in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to change the way child poverty is measured: our time to shine has arrived!
A little background information should be helpful for those lucky enough not to already find themselves embroiled in British politics right now. In 2010, the longstanding Labour government were removed from office in the general election and replaced by a coalition of the centrist Liberal Democrats and the right wing Conservative party; 2015 saw the Conservatives returned with an outright majority. In this time the Lib/Con, and later solely Conservative, governments have pursued an aggressive austerity agenda, including a squeeze on tax breaks, credits and alike for the worst off. It was widely predicted to have a negative impact on the least well off, and especially on children living on the border of poverty. This, it seems, has failed to materialise as Duncan Smith stood up in the House of Commons to announce that child poverty was ‘stable’; this, despite the pressure of austerity on the most vulnerable, is remarkable.
The reality however is much more complex. The figures bear out Duncan Smith’s claim, more or less, but mask two difficult truths. The first is that the percentage of children living in poverty is unchanged on the figures inherited from Labour in 2010, but the hard number of children living in poverty has increased. Secondly, and more interestingly from the point of view of us here at Social Science Works, is that in order to meet their legally binding targets to eradicate child poverty completely by 2020, the Conservatives are going to have to change the way child poverty is measured. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have been extremely vocal about their objection to the government’s massaging of the figures in this way – changing the way child poverty is measured will not, of course, do anything to improve the lives of families that are no longer considered to be impoverished, in fact it is likely to deprive them of needed state support. The purpose of this blog, however, is to draw attention to the way that governments can manipulate social science for their own purposes, and that an external voice is a necessary part of a democracy where such underhand tactics are common.
Measuring Child Poverty Then and Now: The Metrics
Before moving to change the definition in July this year, Iain Duncan Smith’s department had a simple, if somewhat clunky, tool for measuring child poverty. In the past a child was deemed to be living in poverty if they lived in a household with less than 60% of the average British income. Hence, in 2015, a total household income of less than £272 per week is understood to be one ‘in poverty’. As the research from the Office of National Statistics demonstrates, child poverty by this measure is broadly stagnant since the Conservatives took power in 2010, as a percentage of the total population at 17% (although the total number has increased over this time).
As it stood, the metric was flawed insofar as it didn’t account for how several factors, and in fact can be understood to have underestimated child poverty. The previous measure did not account for the cost of living or the rate of inflation, which meant that the figure did little to understand the purchasing power of that sum in context and specifically ignored regional differences.
Further, it did not measure personal circumstances, especially disability, which increases the cost of living for an individual household. In addition, it did not measure simple things like the number of children in the household. Hence, it was ripe for reform, and replacing with a tool which better understood the circumstances of the people it was ostensibly designed to help.
Unfortunately, the Work and Pensions secretary has chosen not to sharpen the child poverty metric, and instead he has burdened it with unscientific elements which fit with his government’s overall agenda on welfare reform on the ‘root causes’ of poverty. In place of a closer look at the cost of living for example, Duncan Smith has opted to include levels of educational attainment of the household’s children at age 16 as a metric. Instead of examining personal circumstances relating to the household’s specific expenditure as mentioned above, families will be measured on ‘worklessness’, that is homes out of work in both the short and long term, an idea as blunt and inflexible as it sounds. In short, these measures will do little beyond demonising some families and go no way towards lifting children out of poverty.
In addition to these measures, the government will look to the rate of family breakdown, levels of debt and instance of addiction is laying out its ‘children’s life chances’ strategy, but will drop the 60% measure. That is to say that the British government’s measurement of child poverty will dispense entirely with a family’s level of income, meaning that the Conservative government will have to do nothing to address material poverty at all in order to eradicate child poverty in line with their targets, IDS is very much all fur coat and no knickers. The British government has effectively got rid of their poverty line. Little wonder then that the Conservatives anticipate reaching their target. This puts Britain out of whack with the rest of Europe and the world. Most of the EU member states use 60% of the median income as their poverty line and the figure is used for international comparison.
In doing so, the British government has effectively chosen to ignore a generation of children living in poverty – there will be nothing to rescue them from material deprivation. And while there is much to be said for addressing the ‘root causes’ of poverty in a society as Duncan Smith argues, this will be of no comfort to one in six British children living in poverty today.
When the previous measures were passed in 2010, the bill enjoyed all-party support, despite its limitations outlined briefly here. Duncan Smith has rejected the bill, arguing that the measure does little to understand ‘whether children’s lives are really improving’. This, perhaps, we can agree on. However, it seems unlikely that the new measure will do much of anything beyond helping the government meet its targets while it continues to squeeze the welfare state. This kind of sleight of hand is a common tactic, and one that ought to receive more scrutiny.
Massaging the Figures and Social Science Works
Governments are in a position to really take advantage of the old adage ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’, especially when it comes to their targets on issues like poverty. This can happen as openly, as in this case, where a cabinet secretary stands up and announces his intention to change the way a problem is measured, or it can happen quietly, allowing government ministers to deliver smooth speeches trumpeting the successes or failures of their immigration policies, while concealing the realities on the ground.
At Social Science Works we are committed to helping NGOs, civil servants and journalists cut through the polished presentations of government minsters and understanding precisely what is being measured when a government proclaims that exam results are going up, pension poverty is down or that the country is ‘happy’. Above all, we are committed to the idea that scientific methods, rigorous research and disdain for accepted discourses can offer citizens an alternative perspective from which to understand their societies and lives.
It could well be that Iain Duncan Smith and the Conservatives manage to eradicate child poverty on paper, but for those most affected by austerity in Britain, this fudged political success will have made little difference to their lives.