Why we shouldn't believe a word of Philip Alston's UN report on poverty in the UK

Philip Alston is the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty. He’s done a report on poverty in the UK. A report that we simply shouldn’t believe a word of. Including any use of then words “and “, “or” and the like. For it actually is pretty terrible. Not that the headlines discussing it point this out but you know, any stick to beat with.

The report is here.

The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos. A booming economy, high employment and a budget surplus have not reversed austerity, a policy pursued more as an ideological than an economic agenda.

A budget surplus? ONS doesn’t think so. Even The Guardian doesn’t think so. Nor does Spreadsheet Phil:

As a share of economic output, the deficit fell to 1.2 percent, its lowest since the 12 months to March 2002 and down from nearly 10 percent during the depths of the global banking crisis a decade ago, the Office for National Statistics said.

Following publication of the figures, Hammond said the government looked on track to meet its goal of reducing overall government debt levels as a percentage of the economy by 2021 and keeping the core budget deficit below 2 percent.

A deficit of 2% of GDP is not a surplus. And this is the level of accuracy throughout the report. You know, not accurate at all.

The United Kingdom, the world’s fifth largest economy, is a leading centre of global finance, boasts a “fundamentally strong” economy and currently enjoys record low levels of unemployment. But despite such prosperity, one fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty. Four million of those are more than 50 per cent below the poverty line3

Footnote 3 is this:

Social Metrics Commission, A New Measure of Poverty for the UK, September 2018, p. 97

Which leads to this. Which is an entirely new method of measuring poverty, one entirely made up by a self-appointed group of possibly worthies. You know, maybe not a useful method of measuring poverty and most certainly not an official one.

and 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017, unable to afford basic essentials.4

Destitution, eh? Footnote 4 is this

Suzanne Fitzpatrick and others, Destitution in the UK 2018, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, pp. 2–3.

Which leads here.

Which describes destitution as being:

Definition of destitution People are destitute if: a) They have lacked two or more of these six essentials over the past month, because they cannot afford them:  shelter (have slept rough for one or more nights)  food (have had fewer than two meals a day for two or more days)  heating their home (have been unable to do this for five or more days)  lighting their home (have been unable to do this for five or more days)  clothing and footwear (appropriate for weather)  basic toiletries (soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush). 3 To check that the reason for going without these essential items was that they could not afford them we: asked respondents if this was the reason; checked that their income was below the standard relative poverty line (ie 60% of median income 'after housing costs' for the relevant household size); and checked that they had no or negligible savings. OR b. Their income is so extremely low that they are unable to purchase these essentials for themselves. We set the relevant weekly 'extremely low' income thresholds by averaging: the actual spend on these essentials of the poorest 10% of the population; 80% of the JRF 'Minimum Income Standard' costs for equivalent items; and the amount that the general public thought was required for a relevant sized household to avoid destitution. The resulting (after housing costs) weekly amounts were £70 for a single adult living alone, £90 for a lone parent with one child, £100 for a couple, and £140 for a couple with two children. We also checked that households had insufficient savings to make up for the income shortfall.

The problem here is that they’re measuring incomes according to something higher than that normal relative poverty measure of 60% of median household income. Instead, they’re using their own higher estimate, the one that leads to the living wage numbers. Apologies, we got bored checking footnotes at this stage, the point being we think well made.

And yes, it gets worse than that. If we plug that £70 a week number into the global income distribution then we find that this apparently abject destitution is in the top 25% of all such global incomes. Note that this is the post housing paid for income, while that global number is a pre-housing one. Adding in a modest £100 a week for housing costs puts that destitution level up into the top 16 or 17% of global incomes. And that’s before we even consider the free at the point of use health care, education and so on that the British state provides.

Britain is a place where some have more than others, most certainly. That’s known as inequality. Britain doesn’t actually have any - at all - of what we globally call poverty and it most certainly doesn’t have any destitution. As actually checking the footnotes of Philip Alston’s report shows. Which is why we shouldn’t believe anything the report says.