There is much more to poverty than addiction to drugs and alcohol

Iain Duncan’s Smith speech on measuring child poverty today focused on addiction. While it’s a serious problem, Chris Goulden argues there is much more to poverty than addiction.

The main criteria for judging any poverty strategy should be whether it is firmly grounded in evidence about what policies and practices are effective and finding the mix that provides most impact for least cost. That’s the starting point for JRF in our new anti-poverty programme.

The context is important too of course – negative public attitudes and media stereotypes about poverty are important barriers to taking action. But it is a mistake to allow public attitudes, or ideas about what those attitudes superficially seem to be, to drive anti-poverty policy.

As part of the child poverty consultation process, the Department for Work and Pensions have published the results of a public poll. It asked: “Could you please tell me how important you think each of the following are when deciding whether someone is growing up in poverty?” Respondents were given a list of possible answers such as parental drug addiction, bad housing, not enough income, poor services and so on.

I’ve no doubt that the survey (of 1,000 adults) genuinely reflects public opinion on the specific question. The percentage deeming different factors 'important' ranged from:

  • 90% for parental drugs or alcohol addiction;
  • 79% for insufficient income;
  • 53% for parental lack of skills for employment.

There’s been focus on the first point about addiction already. This survey by itself doesn’t show that addiction is the cause of 90% of child poverty, or even that it is a major cause (or a cause at all). Helpfully, we have reviewed some of the evidence.

This finds that 0.9% of adults are problem drug users (heroin/crack) and 3.8% are dependent on alcohol. So, less than 4.7% overall. We don’t know how many of these are in poverty or how many are parents but about ¼ million people on benefits are problem drug users and 160,000 are dependent drinkers (7% and 4% of claimants respectively). Nearly one in twenty people is not a tiny problem and addiction can be terrible for those affected, particularly the children, but it’s a statistically small number of people in poverty.

The scales of the problems of poverty and addiction among parents are of different orders entirely. That’s not to deny any link between the two: clearly poverty is a risk factor here, but there is much more to poverty than just addiction. Most people in poverty are not addicted to heroin, crack or alcohol but are just struggling to make ends meet. Can’t we all agree on that?

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