Measuring poverty


Financial secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Timms, has said that both parents should work in order to lift children out of poverty.

This is in reaction to Lesley Ward, president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), stating that many children face levels of deprivation, which "mirror the times of Dickens". Of course, Mrs Ward’s analogy is  entirely incorrect as far as the way most people understand poverty. In fact, in the details of what she says it is clear that she in not concerned about income at all but manners and lifestyle.

As has been pointed out on this blog and elsewhere, the government has it wrong defining child poverty as children living in families earning less than 60% of the median income. They are not measuring poverty but equality, patently not the same things. Also, any fall or rise in the median income will of course influence the measurement of poverty, despite no change in the actual conditions of the poor.

Mr Timms argues his case based on the fact that children are less likely to be in a family earning less than 60% of the median wage if both parents are working. But this tells us precisely nothing about the lives of children in these households. After all, both parents working is not going to solve Mrs Ward’s claims that many children attend schools without being toilet-trained, unable to dress themselves or use a knife and fork. It could in fact make things worse.

It is hard to measure poverty and any system is open to complexities and irregularities. Yet if poverty is to be measured, the principal test of its usefulness should be that it captures poverty as an absolute condition, not as a relative one. A good place to start would be to look at the work of the philanthropist Charles Boothe, the founding father of measuring poverty. Although clearly not the last word on the issue, the maps he produced in the late 19th century were – though far from politically correct – a clear snapshot on the areas and nature of poverty at this time. Something that the current way of measuring poverty fails to do.