On the subject of poverty porn

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We here at the ASI thoroughly support the idea of food banks. Who wouldn't support the idea of voluntary cooperation to feed the hungry? Even, of a private sector organisation that was able to fill in for the malevolence and or incompetence of the State? However, that's not to say that we need go overboard and swallow uncritically everything we're being told by the poverty porn campaigners. To take just one example, this piece in The Independent.

 Christmas shoppers are expected spend £1.2bn today, as 13 million consumers hand over £21m every minute. But while those who can afford it stock up in the desperate rush for gifts on “Panic Saturday”, another 13 million people will have more sobering reasons to worry – living in poverty in a festive Britain characterised as “two nations” divided.

That 13 million living in poverty. It's a highly arguable number. Depends on what your definition of poverty is and how you're calculating it. And the way that it is calculated is that it's a measure of inequality, not of poverty. It is less than 60% of median income adjusted for household size either before or after housing costs. To get that 13 million figure it is after housing costs. If before, it is rather lower:

The number of people in the UK living in poverty fell by 100,000 in the past year to 9.7 million, according to official figures.

The data suggests the percentage of those in poverty is at its lowest level since the 1980s.

Poverty is defined in this context as when households have an income before housing costs below 60% of the median.

Note that this is still not a measure of poverty. It is a measure of the income distribution perhaps, of inequality, but not of actual poverty.

Fortunately we do also have a measurement of poverty, of actual material deprivation:

Trends in combined low income and material deprivation and severe poverty: New material deprivation items were introduced in 2010/11. The proportion of children living in low income (below 70 per cent of equivalised median household income, BHC) and material deprivation and severe poverty (below 50 per cent of median household income and in material deprivation) for 2011/12 has fallen to 12 per cent and 3 per cent respectively in 2011/12, representing a 1 percentage point fall for both measures compared to 2010/1122. As the proportion of households with children falling below the 70 per cent and 50 per cent low-income thresholds remained the same in 2011/12 compared to 2010/11, this fall was primarily driven by a decrease in the proportion of families experiencing material deprivation.

That is, whatever it is that is being done about poverty is reducing it by the measure that most of us would use in a colloquial sense. Material deprivation is falling. This might even be at the cost of more inequality in the use of those relative numbers. Possible causes there are reductions in general benefits and the targeting of that benefit and or tax system at the truly poor rather than simply at those just under 60% of median. Which, if reducing poverty is your goal seems like a pretty reasonable idea to us really.

What has really happened here is that in the past few decades the institutional definition of poverty has changed. Beveridge was not worrying about whether families had 50% or 60% of what everyone else had. He was worrying about whether there was dripping on the bread for tea. As that problem largely became solved the definition was shifted so that we are all urged now, in the official figures, to worry about inequality, not that actual poverty that so effectively tugs at our heartstrings.

Essentially, as the problem was solved the definition was changed so that there would still be something to berate us all with.

There are, of course, other inconsistencies in the numbers being thrown about:

The Trussell Trust warned it is expecting its busiest Christmas ever in providing emergency rations – with one million people now relying on food banks run by the charity and other organisations.

That's not so either. The general meaning, the colloquial takeaway from that, is that 1 million people are dependent all of the time on those food banks. Not so at all. The actual number is that over the past year 1 million people or so have been served by a food bank once or more times (and generally the limit is three days food in one visit and only three visits allowed). That gives us 8,200 people actually relying upon a food bank on any one day.

Yes, we can still say that that's too many people, we can still say that we're delighted that people give up their own time and money to fill in for the inefficiencies of the State. But it is a rather different picture of the scale of the problem being solved, isn't it?

As 2014 draws to a close there are 13 million people in poverty – including 27 per cent of the 2.5 million children in the UK, according to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).

Again this is inequality of income, this is the below 60% of median equivalised household income. This is not poverty nor is it material deprivation.

Inequality in the UK is now so extreme that the five richest families are wealthier than the bottom 20 per cent of the entire population, according to Oxfam.

Of course. This happens with absolutely every conceivable wealth distribution. For it is entirely possible to have negative wealth (in a manner that we do not record negative incomes). That newly minted Oxbridge graduate about to start earning £100k a year in the City is recorded as having negative wealth as a result of student loans. The truth is that if you've got a £10 note and no debts then you are richer than all of the bottom 20% households in the wealth distribution. No, not just richer than each one of them, richer than all of them in aggregate.

Meanwhile, the housing charity Shelter predicts that 93,000 children will be homeless this Christmas, as the number of homeless families trapped in temporary or emergency accommodation exceeds 60,000.

Interesting how that number is made up don't you think? As a society we provide temporary and emergency housing for those that need it. When we do so they are still classed as being homeless. This does have an inevitable effect: the crisis never goes away, does it?

The general numbers we get thrown at us about poverty in the UK are not actually about poverty in the general meaning of that word. They are about inequality in the distribution of income. Of course, you can worry about that inequality if you want to do so. But the reason those measurements have been changed, the reason that the "relative" so often gets dropped from "relative poverty", is because those who wish to spread this poverty porn know very well that most of us are concerned about, would happily do something about, actual poverty and as to inequality, well, there's a general reaction of "Meh".

As such we must be fed the figures about relative poverty so as to tug at our heartstrings as if it were absolute poverty, that material deprivation.

Or, the TL:DR version: they're fiddling the figures.

Finally, one further calculation. There's some 8,000 people a day receiving those food parcels. Let's say each parcel is worth perhaps £30 (we've got to use some sort of estimate after all). That's around and about a £90 million a year problem. One of the solutions proposed is that the minimum wage should be raised up to the Living Wage. That's a pay rise of £2,000 a year for 1.3 million people or so (taking only the number paid the current minimum wage, not including any effects on those between it and the Living Wage).

It's a £2.6 billion partial answer to a £90 million problem.

It might well be better to continue with the food bank solution.