Yesterday the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a ‘leading think-tank’ (their description, not mine) published a report called ‘Rethinking Child Poverty’ and issued an accompanying press release calling on the government to ‘scrap flawed child poverty targets’.
Child Poverty Action Group and Channel 4’s Fact Check have already examined some of the assumptions and statistical work in the release and found it wanting, perhaps an example of the ‘educational failure’ that the CSJ mention as a cause of poverty. The CPAG report suggested that one of CSJ’s claims was ‘nonsense’ and could ‘only stem from a failure to understand the difference between the median income (the middle income) and the mean income (the average income)’ while the Factcheck blog suggests the report is ‘misleading’. Both of these responses are worth reading and I will not duplicate what they have covered.
Miles Corak, in a blog post, predicted what the criticisms of a UNICEF report released on the same day would be and his comments are also relevant to the CSJ report. He wrote that the response from critics would include:
Relative poverty rates are not poverty at all, they are measures of inequality, the critique continues, and as such can never be eliminated.
The CSJ wrote:
The first methodological flaw of the Government’s central measure of poverty is that it is defined in relative terms. The result of this is that the poor will always exist statistically, as it is inevitable that some in society will have less than others
Entirely predictable then. What is also unsurprising is the way that poverty is framed and this post concentrates on the language used in the press-release (and which is echoed throughout the report) which, once again, sets out to link poverty with individual or family ‘problems’ and behaviours. Here’s a few examples:
Poverty is about more than money – it is about the family breakdown, addiction, debt-traps, and failing schools that blight the lives of our children
the accent would be on measuring the underlying causes of blighted young lives, such as family breakdown, welfare dependency and educational failure, rather than the symptoms of low relative income
The ‘relative’ yardstick takes no account of the true, underlying causes of a deprived upbringing, for instance whether a child has the love and care of two parents, whether he or she has the role model of adults who go out to work for a living, or whether drug or alcohol addiction scars family life
Yet we know from our own extensive research as well as the research of others that the key drivers of poverty are family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependency and worklessness, addiction and serious personal debt
Other factors that should be taken into account include the ability to save, the quality of a child’s parenting, family stability because children from broken homes are twice as likely to suffer behavioural problems than those from intact families, levels of worklessness in households because children tend to repeat the work habits of their parents, access to good schools, truancy rates, drug and alcohol addiction and levels of household debt
The press-release consistently ignores the potential for any kind of link between income and family circumstance, ignores the centrality of money in our society, portrays that society as largely benign and passive and lays the blame for child poverty at the door of the parents. No mention is made of political or societal responses to these examples of ‘social breakdown which fuel’ poverty. But if family breakdown is a driver of child poverty, why are poverty rates for lone parents different in different countries? Are differing levels of unemployment symptomatic of different cultures and attitudes to work, both regionally and internationally (and what about in-work poverty). Poverty is the result of political and economic decisions and there isn’t a great deal of ‘evidence’ worthy of the name that suggests otherwise. Anecdotes are not quite the same thing.
The ‘extensive’ evidence that they mention largely consists of their own work and government commissioned research. No academic publications feature in the report at all, which should be, but isn’t, surprising. The CSJ speak highly of their Alliance, a group of over 300 ‘grassroots poverty-fighting charities’ who tell them what life is like for people in poverty. Why not speak to the people themselves rather than relying on intermediaries? Academic research (including work that we’ve covered here by Kathy Hamilton and Chris Warburton-Brown) that has actually gone out and spoken to people on low-incomes has found that money, and more specifically a lack of it, plays a central role in people’s lives.
Regular readers will know that this is an issue that we cover quite frequently here and I’m beginning to get a bit sick of reading (and writing) about this stuff, but it is, as a colleague said to me, a ‘zombie arguement’: no matter how much you think you’ve killed it off, it keeps coming back to life and, unfortunately, it appears to be particularly resilient at the present time. But, as Franklin D. Roosevelt argued,a lie does not become a truth no matter how often it is repeated.
What is particularly worrying, in my mind, is the opportunity that this intervention, and others like it, presents to the government to discuss poverty in a different way and which legitimises the ‘new approach’. There have already been reports of a desire within the government to scrap the income related targets and the CPAG response notes that:
it is difficult not to regard many of the arguments advanced in the CSJ report as little more than a smokescreen to allow the government to claim to do ‘something’ about poverty without spending any money. If poverty is about income, self-evidently we need to bolster family incomes. But those who attack poverty measures (however poorly) provide cover for the coalition to keep cutting the incomes of poor families, while claiming to champion their cause
Given the CSJ’s reputation for researching and analysing the causes of poverty and deprivation, its intervention in the debate should provide the coalition with a welcome opportunity to replace Labour’s narrow and self-defeating policy with a more authentic and constructive approach. It could also present the Prime Minister with a chance to reaffirm his commitment to tackling social problems by supporting and strengthening families.
Many of you will be aware that Iain Duncan Smith founded the Centre for Social Justice and that Christian Guy, the MD of CSJ, is his former speech writer. It is unlikely that this report came as a shock to the government. Interesting times lie ahead….