Measuring child poverty: consultation dodges some difficult questions

15th Nov 2012

JRF welcomes a better way of measuring poverty - but how should it be done?

The Government launched its consultation on measuring child poverty today. What should we make of it?

First of all, the principle of a better understanding of poverty is a good one. JRF has always supported this idea, and we practice what we preach: we publish 50 indicators each year (our next instalment is due later this month).

The areas it outlines look generally sensible – housing is particularly welcome. It’s also notable that it stays away from areas like addiction, which are certainly problems but affect a relatively small proportion of people in poverty. So, a lot that chimes with JRF’s approach.

But then JRF’s not the Government. Government measures are different in that they have an accountability function, and in that they set the ultimate goals of policy.

The first one of those, I’d be relatively relaxed about. We can set aside some of the sillier comments about the Government trying to legislate poverty out of existence, because it’s hardly choosing an easier path. Debt, parental health, skills and so on are not simple things for Government to tackle, and now they’ll be measured. Talk about a rod for their back. Arguably adding to existing targets dilutes them: I’d perhaps agree if they added dozens of indicators, JRF-style, but probably not given it’s only eight areas.

The second thing – driving policy – is a bit trickier. The criticism of the current targets is that by measuring relative income it focused policy on income redistribution to the exclusion of other things. Presumably, this means the things the Government now says it wants to measure are policy priorities. In other words, the ultimate aim of making people better off is not disputed – it’s the way it's done that is the question, and the choice of metric is seen as directing policy towards what works.  

The thing is, working out exactly what does work, and identifying those things beyond income that policy should focus on, is not easy – particularly because causality is poorly understood, and the consultation dodges the issue of how different aspects of poverty really interact. To take one of the areas the consultation proposes should be measured, family stability, it’s clear single parents are more likely to be in poverty than couples. But do couples split up because of money pressures, or do couples that split up fall into money pressures?

So outlining potential measures is all very well: establishing interactions between them is fraught with difficulty. Intentionally or not, the Government isn’t just suggesting measures to capture the experience of poverty; it is suggesting measuring things it thinks cause poverty. In a field with sometimes limited evidence, it is hard to do that without being led, at some point, primarily by ideology.

Perhaps this is too harsh. It is only a consultation after all, and as far as these things go, quite an open-ended one. Organisations like JRF will be producing detailed responses and suggesting which metrics make sense, and what data could be used.

The basic idea – a better measurement of poverty – is welcome. Now for the hard part: working out how to do that.