Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Professor John Veit Wilson (CP 24)


  This paper addresses the following points:

  1.  In considering how to identify and combat child poverty, the Select Committee must address the problem of the Government's resistance to using scientific methods to find out what poverty means, what resources are needed to combat it, and at what income levels it affects families with children.

  2.  The number of children in poverty cannot be counted until there is agreement on how to measure poverty, and there will be no agreement until the confusion by policy makers between scientific analysis and political objectives has been clarified and dispelled.

  3.  The Government wants a publicly credible and easily understood headline measure of child poverty, and the most straightforward and best understood and accepted measure of poverty is household cash income. But however many deprivations and social ills are to be included in the overview of child poverty, each should be defined and measured in its own right and not conflated into one measure. Having an adequate household income is the best known and understood proxy for the resources needed to overcome almost all of these deprivations.

  4.  The European Union requires member states to implement policies to guarantee an adequate income and resources to live in human dignity and to participate in society as full members. The UK cannot do this until it has introduced tools by which to discover what an adequate income is at which level human dignity and full participation are recognised. Poverty will continue by definition until this has been done.

  5.  Given that scientific methods alone do not meet political goals, the only reliable, robust and politically viable method of devising measuring tools in the UK is by triangulation of reliable evidence from many sources of data to construct governmental minimum income standards. The Select Committee has recently considered this question and made recommendations to Parliament. These should be repeated and implemented. It should also enquire into the minimum income standards tacitly used by HM Treasury.

  6.  Constructing governmental minimum income standards by triangulation will require the interpretation of a range of scientifically reliable findings about many kinds of deprivation and social ills. This cannot be done by either social scientists, statisticians or officials alone. Judgement will have to be exercised by committee. A key issue for the Select Committee must be the criteria by which the committee is to exercise its judgement. These criteria should be open to public scrutiny and debate: poverty cannot be defined by government policy objectives.

  7.  The vocabulary of poverty debate is now so complex and so widely misunderstood, as the DWP consultation document and preliminary conclusions show, that a return to using agreed customary meanings is essential if there is to be progress on understanding the problem of child poverty and making constructive policy to combat it.


  1.  If the children in poverty in the UK are to be counted, we must first agree on a definition of poverty and how to measure by that definition. Only when that is agreed can we move on to discuss what causes poverty as conceptualised and defined in that way and who is poor. The analysis of policy must follow those stages, not precede them.

  2.  No one but the people in a society can say how that society defines poverty.[269] Governments may want to do so, but they will be discredited if their definitions are too narrow and their measures too low, for people's experience of persistent deprivation (as they see it) above a government's prescribed poverty measure shows the Government was wrong. Only social science methods can capture what society means, and only those methods and tools; open to scientific debate and agreement, subject to testing, replication and refutation, can assess the nature and extent of the problem of poverty.

  3.  The trouble is that this and previous UK Governments reject certain scientific methods or findings in the field of poverty research as valid for policy making. More UK Government ministers than there is space to quote here have denied for decades that science has any part to play in the question of "how much is enough?". Either they report that scientific agreement is impossible because the scientific experts do not agree, or they deny the possibility of applicable scientific research in this field. This is because they confuse the scope of scientific analysis with their pursuit of political objectives.

  4.  The political objections to scientific measures on their own can be overcome by the use of governmental minimum income standards as other countries do, including the USA. The Social Security Select Committee has already accepted the evidence in 2001.[270] Naturally the precise basis on which the governmental minimum income standards are founded varies according to the political culture of the countries concerned, but in each case they draw on national evidence of adequate incomes in their countries.[271] In the UK, the political culture is now explicitly demanding "evidence-based" policy. To demand that the measure of child poverty should be based on hard evidence and not on mere assumption is the thrust of this submission.

  5.  The UK Government seems not to have accepted the recommendations which the Select Committee report on Integrated Child Credit (2001) made for governmental minimum income standards. I must therefore return to the subject here, since it is central to the current Work and Pensions Select Committee enquiry.

  6.  I am responding to the first of the two major areas into which the Select Committee is to enquire, the examination of the extent of child poverty in the UK. The paper focuses on the prior issue, the measurement of child poverty, since all else follows from that. The Department for Work and Pensions has already consulted widely on how to measure child poverty during 2002. It published a consultation document which set out the problems as it saw them (DWP 2002). It has now published a report on its preliminary conclusions (DWP 2003). I submitted a memorandum to the consultation, and it covers much of the basic ground I want to put before the Select Committee now. It also shows the difficulties and confusions in the DWP approach, as well as suggesting how its legitimate concerns and objectives can be met. It is therefore attached as appendix A to this paper.

  7.  The two documents from the DWP revealed widespread misunderstandings about many technical issues of poverty conceptualisation and measurement which regrettably vitiated many of its conclusions. Because this reflects the underlying political problem, the first point must be to ask the Select Committee to confront this problem explicitly.


  8.  The Minister Malcolm Wicks MP himself described the search for scientific poverty measures as "a Holy Grail that is absurd to pursue".[272] He went on to say that his constituents tell him that "they are not worried about academic measures, they are worried about poverty and how to get out of it". These statements reflect two "political truths". The first statement reflects the very long-standing UK Government reluctance to admit the validity of any rigorous examination of the meaning of poverty or the adequacy of the income maintenance benefits to combat it, for fear that the findings might embarrass the Government by revealing that minimum benefit levels were inadequate.[273]

  9.  The second statement, with which we might all agree, reflects that the language in which Mr Wicks's constituents conceptualise poverty is not the same as the language in which his officials frame their proposals for measuring child poverty. Social scientists have the tools for bridging this gap, but although official language has some similarities to scientific language, the values and objectives of policy makers and social scientists are very different and often in conflict. The DWP must therefore be commended for consulting children and parents about the meanings they attached to the idea of poverty. Almost all of them responded that money, or the things that money can buy, were central to their idea of poverty, so it is puzzling that the DWP still resists finding out how much money income is needed not to experience poverty.

  10.  As to the fear that evidence of inadequate incomes might embarrass the Government, the Select Committee should note that some (but not all) of the countries which use governmental minimum income standards as political guides to the adequacy of the various tiers of their income maintenance systems also use them to measure poverty.[274] For example, the United States Government seems comfortable using its "poverty line" (what should be called a governmental minimum income standard) to count people in poverty while the US federal and state governments do not pay income maintenance benefits at anything like this level. In countries where governmental minimum income standards relate to higher tiers of income maintenance such as minimum wages or pensions, social assistance benefits may be lower.

  11.  Second, UK Governments resist scientific evidence of the adequacy of household incomes, which is a matter of discovering and evaluating the quality of levels of living or the meaning of welfare. But they do not resist scientific research offering descriptions of household economies, or the descriptive analysis of the income distribution. The resistance is not to social science methods as such but only to reliable research evidence of what Mr Wicks' constituents and other people like them conclude about what is an adequate income which will get them out of their poverty. This shows that the resistance is simply political.


  12.  The UK is thus in the paradoxical position that the Government counts the people in poverty by a statistical measure of income inequality (Households Below Average Income) which has nothing to do with poverty, at the same time as the Prime Minister himself states on television that the real problem is not inequality of incomes but the (in)adequacy of the lowest incomes to allow people to escape poverty.[275] The paradoxes continue. The DWP wants an easily comprehensible headline measure of child poverty with public credibility, which the majority of its respondents say must be largely a matter of money incomes, but the response is to dismiss governmental minimum income standards as if their promise for meeting these and political requirements has not been understood. Further, the EU asked member states to report what they are doing to guarantee adequate incomes, included among the three basic objectives of their National Action Plans against Poverty and Social Exclusion, but the UK Government's response omits mention of how it is to discover or guarantee adequacy.[276] These issues are discussed further below, as well as in Appendix A.

  13.  The picture is thus, to put it at its best, one of total government confusion over the question of how to measure child poverty. That is why I put the need to address the grounds for the confusion, and the Government's unnecessary muddle between scientific and political objectives, as an important part of the problem into which this enquiry is being held. The confusions between scientific and political definitions of the problems and response are discussed at greater length in Appendix B.


  14.  If child poverty is to be measured, the Select Committee will first have to come to a conclusion about what it wants to understand as "child poverty". Poverty causes human suffering and is too important to be treated as a mere debating matter.

  15.  It is very important for the welfare of children in the UK today and in the future that the Select Committee wrests back the poverty measurement agenda from the unnecessarily restricted possibilities suggested by the DWP consultation, and prevents the DWP's political clout from forcing a closure on the public awareness and consideration of other and more effective ways of achieving both the DWP's valid political goals and the wider objective of child poverty elimination in the UK.

  16.  Broad or narrow? The first question to be answered is whether child poverty is to be understood as a broad range of outcomes (the DWP approach, exemplified in Opportunity for all), or as the lack of a narrow range of resources, chiefly money incomes, which influences almost all of those outcomes.

  17.  Quite apart from the promise to abolish child poverty, whatever that is taken to be, the Government has long been concerned about a range of social evils and ills in the fields chiefly of child development, health, housing, education, employment, and social behaviour, which it wants to combat and prevent. It has recognised that material conditions over time are a major factor in causing these and similar social ills, though it also seems to welcome behavioural explanations divorced from their material preconditions (for instance, reluctance to work rather than job unavailability as the explanation of unemployment). It wants to be able to measure change in each of the fields in which its policies might be seen to have had some effect. It labels some of these social ills as "poverty", but also as "social exclusion", and recognises that some of them are called "deprivations". None of these terms have precise or agreed meanings in common usage and many versions are on offer, broader and narrower.

  18.  The Government also recognises that having enough money income is a major factor in people's ability to buy their way (and their children's way) out of many if not all of the social ills and evils. Not only do most of the respondents confirm that this is fact, but the DWP's statements repeatedly endorse that understanding, though the DWP usually qualifies it—"Whilst low income is central to poverty, it is not the only dimension" which affects a child's opportunities. Clearly that statement must be true, but we are not talking about the whole range of opportunities open to a child—we are talking about measuring the lack of household income which is either poverty in itself (narrow) or the means by which to buy its way out of poverty (broad). It is an example of the DWP's confusion of scientific analysis and political language and objectives.

  19.  Even if the broad approach is adopted, there are still two distinct issues here. One is the description and measurement of the range of levels of living, just as the Government does with incomes. This would allow what the DWP calls the dimensions of "a child's quality of life" to be measured, across the range of all children's experience. But the second issue is, as with the measurement of incomes, the standard by which the quality of life is to be evaluated and identified as either "poverty" or "not-poverty"—and that either in publicly credible or politically expedient terms. We cannot discover what the meaning and condition of poverty is without examining the level of living of the whole of society, but we cannot identify it without a separate evaluative standard, a criterion which ought equally (in a democratic society) to derive from the whole of society and which may not coincide with or be expressed in the same way as the judgements of political or professional élites.

  20.  The Select Committee may share the DWP's aim of finding tools to measure quality of life (an outcome of having resources) or the adequacy of the range of resources which provide it (the inputs), or it may take a different view that both need measuring, but not in the same incompatible measure. The DWP's answer seems to be that it wants to measure both, but preferably only those inputs and outcomes which form part of the Government's policy agenda. The adequacy for purpose and objective of health, education and employment policies and provisions are constantly assessed, but, as noted before, the adequacy of incomes to avoid poverty has never been part of the UK Government agenda.

  21.  Static or dynamic views? It is useful to have a single poverty measure as an easily quotable headline, but the Government would prefer it to include a broad range of outcome aspects. At the same time, it wants to deal with the causes of social evils as long as they do not raise questions about traditionally sensitive subjects such as the adequacy of income maintenance benefits. It often overlooks the problem of the dynamic chain, that the causes of a condition of social ill lead to consequences (outcomes) which may themselves be the causes of or inputs to a further social ill condition, as for instance where low household income influences poor maternal diet which influences a child's health and its ability to benefit from education and its future job prospects, and thus in a circle. The Select Committee's deliberations will be helped by distinguishing between the elements of this chain of causes and effects.

  22.  Policy considerations rightly affect which parts of this whole package of bad social conditions and their causes and consequences the DWP wishes to concentrate on, but this focus may not be what the scientific commentators who have responded to the consultations so far have seen as the salient issues, for reasons touched on above. The Select Committee should take a less DWP-policy-bound perspective in its deliberations, and instead treat each element of this broad and complex picture as requiring measurement and standard-setting in its own right. Narrowness then becomes the virtue of precision in identifying the issues and focusing on them one at a time. Precise analytical focus must include return to the area the DWP avoids, the measurement of the adequacy of income inputs to avoid the adverse outcomes government is rightly concerned about. In this way the distinction between broad and narrow approaches to measuring poverty is seen as false. The real issue is how to identify and measure each relevant element in the causal chain.

  23.  For these reasons I strongly recommend that all the dimensions of poverty or deprivation and of their outcomes which the Select Committee decides to identify as important in any explanation of what poverty is should each be separately measured using the scientific methods appropriate to that dimension. Composite measures which combine these elements are simply devices for easy communication of a complicated picture, as the DWP pointed out in claiming this as a desirable objective. That claim in itself exposes the DWP's measures as a presentational device and disqualifies them as a scientific analysis of the realties of child poverty. This again exemplifies the DWP's confusion of issues, and if the measure lacks integrity it will also lack credibility.

  24.  It is indisputable that in an increasingly marketised economy where consumers are expected to exercise choice by using their money incomes, the most important resource every household must have is enough income to take a decent part in society. The abolition of child poverty is unachievable without adequate money incomes; they must therefore be measured. Children in families which have enough money do not suffer the social ills and outcomes which concern the Government (or at any rate they are not then called poverty). How much money is that?


  25.  Others will comment on the measures appropriate to the wide range of adverse outcomes for children of living in poor families. My concern is with two kinds of measurement which are central to the Select Committee enquiry:

      (a)  measuring the standards by which society defines a certain level of living as poor or deprived; and

      (b)  Measuring the resources, including money incomes, needed over time and at a point in time to establish and sustain a level of living which is not poor or deprived by the standards which society has set and discovered by (a).

  26.  On (a), the best existing research is that which uses a range of appropriate methods, qualitative and quantitative, to find out from UK society what it sees as the minimum acceptable levels of living and necessities which no one should be without, and which augments this with the advice of recognised experts in fields such as child nutrition, health and education to produce a full picture of the required "standard of living" (in the proper evaluative sense of the word "standard") which every child should experience.

  27.  This is the kind of research carried out by the teams which produced the report on Poverty and social exclusion in Britain in 2000.[277] The Select Committee should recommend that such work be funded by the Government but carried out independently on a periodic basis such as every five years. By combining the approaches and findings of several different methods of scientific research, it has many of the advantages of triangulation in providing a solid foundation for its findings.

  28.  On (b), the findings of many years of research into the dynamics of deprivations show the role of a variety of tangible and intangible resources, but leaving human personality variation aside, what emerges from disentangling the chain of causes, conditions and consequences is the role of whatever can be turned into a flow of money income. Only those who wish to avoid the implications of this conclusion constantly try to divert attention away from the role of money to other resources (often forgetting that these too can be acquired over time given enough money). The rest of society knows very well that people who have enough money buy their way out of almost all deprivations if they want, and by definition out of everything that would be called poverty.

  29.  The conclusion is inescapable. As the DWP reported:

    ". . . most who expressed a view saw low income as being central to any poverty measure, with most perceiving the pledge to eradicate child poverty as being related to income poverty." (DWP 2003 p31)

    "There was a near universal view that income was central to any headline or summary measure used to track child poverty in the long term." (DWP 2003 p33)[278]

  30.  The question then is how to measure the money incomes needed to avoid poverty. This subject has had a lot of attention since Seebohm Rowntree devised a primary poverty measure in 1899, in fact to show that many workers' families had lower incomes than what was needed for physical subsistence alone. Such "absolute" measures are now discredited, and three methods are currently used—

  31.  (i) to discover the level of household income which is found statistically to correlate with a minimally adequate standard of living. This is the method pioneered by the Abel-Smith and Townsend sociological research team in the 1960s and used in amended forms by many subsequent researchers.[279] It is a direct method because it starts with the actual level of living which responses show is marginally adequate (not suffering several socially-defined deprivations) and then discovers by reliable statistical methods at what income levels it is on average just achieved. The money measures are a statistical derivative found by research; they are not described or prescribed by the population surveyed or the researchers.

  32.  (ii) to ask the population at what level of household income they can "just make ends meet" or "just get by". This is an indirect method because it uses the responses as a proxy for the real marginal level of living reflected by "making ends meet" or "just getting by" or similar expressions. This method was pioneered by public opinion pollsters in the USA in the 1930s and made technically sophisticated by econometricians at the Universities of Leyden and Antwerp in the 1970s; it also has been amended and widely used since then.[280] It treats public opinion and attitudes as being as valid in this field as it is in all other political research.

  33.  (iii)  to build up highly detailed lists of every conceivable component of the standard of living which is to be achieved, by asking the population what it considers necessary and by studying what the population actually does buy across the income range, augmented and qualified by the views of experts in fields such as nutrition, health and household economy, and then costing them in a given place and time. This is also a direct method and was pioneered by the UK's Family Budget Unit in the 1980s. Variants of the method have used different sources to judge what are the standards of living to be achieved and their essential components to be included. These budget studies use the findings of social research on what society defines as necessities, and some are enriched by basing their judgements of what to include and to what standard on the advice of ordinary people in focus groups.[281]

  34.  Each of these intensive scientific methods produces valid and reliable findings, even if they are not sufficiently understood by politicians and officials who have other agendas. But precisely because their methods and findings are not identical (as the Government says, "the experts do not agree"), and precisely because the objective is a measure which is both scientifically and publicly credible, the Select Committee should recommend that all of these methods be used in research to find out what required income figures they produce for households containing children to avoid poverty and deprivations. The results of this and much other relevant evidence should be studied by a panel of experts, such as those who advise the DWP, or by some other independent research institute, and compared and calibrated ("triangulated") to produce the unified poverty measure which is wanted. The production of politically credible governmental minimum income standards then becomes feasible.

  35.  Such a unified measure would of course vary for households of varying size and composition, and the whole question of evidence-based equivalence scales still needs much further study. But it would allow the reliable identification and counting of all households in the UK (by sample survey or other methods), to discover how many children live in poverty as society defines it. However, if the Select Committee wishes to retain the HBAI statistical measures of income inequality, it should recommend three qualifications to their use:

      1.  until the percentage has been scientifically validated as a measure of poverty they should be referred to only as measures of low income;

      2.  using the methods above for scientific validation, and triangulating with other data sources on social ills caused by low incomes, the Government should sponsor or carry out the research needed to show at what percentage of median incomes households with children on average actually achieve the socially-defined minimum adequate standard of living and avoid the social ills; and

      3.  the Government should publish the findings of this research annually and should publish time series of changes in the actual percentage of median income found to be needed by households with children to avoid poverty.

  36.  The DWP needs a measure which allows time series to be collected, and this would allow monitoring of the effectiveness of government policies to reduce child poverty in terms of the actual levels of minimally adequate household income and in terms of the relationship to median household incomes, both of which are likely to change over time.


  37.  The question for the Select Committee is not only what are UK views on what child poverty means and how to measure it, but does the European Union's requirement that the UK Government (like others) should provide adequate social protection have implications for the standards to be applied to the choice of measures. The EU's National Action Plans against Poverty and Social Exclusion for 2003-05 require member states to report what they plan to do "to organise social protection systems in such a way that they help, in particular, to guarantee that everyone has the resources necessary to live in accordance with human dignity"[282], a phrase which seems synonymous with an adequate income.

  38.  The EU official statements suggest that the minimum standards to be applied must reflect what in the UK is taken as the meaning of living "in a manner compatible with human dignity".[283] The UN suggests this should achieve a level of living which enables the poorest to "appear in public without shame".[284] The EU emphasises that this requires Member States to ensure that everyone has access to "a wage sufficient to enable them to have a decent standard of living"[285] and to "adequate social protection".[286] In the EU, adequacy means "a sufficient income to lead a life with dignity and to participate in society as full members".[287]

  39.  There are many similar examples in the international declarations about human values and rights to welfare, including the right to an adequate standard of living and to sufficient resources to enable it to be achieved. For instance, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, Article 25, states that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family", rights reconfirmed by the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and again by the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. Article 27-1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 "states Parties recognise the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development".

  40.  What does the right to security mean in the UK if not an adequate income? And what is an adequate standard of living if it is not sufficient for decency and dignity and for participation as full members without shame as UK society sees it? These questions are not separate from `what is poverty', they are aspects of the same question, what concept of poverty is to be applied and how can we identify and measure it? No amount of government assertion that other income measures can be `assumed' to be poverty measures will be credible if it fails to produce evidence that the decent, dignified, participatory and shame-free standard of living which guarantees every child the outcomes listed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child can be achieved on that income level.


  41.  The Government is right to seek an official poverty measure (what should be called a governmental minimum income standard) which is publicly credible, methodologically defensible and administratively feasible (as the US official inquiry into its government poverty measure put it[288]). The Select Committee will however have to re-emphasise to government what its report on Integrated Child Credit investigated and recommended in 2001, since its conclusions that the Government should sponsor a range of research and have it independently monitored on a standing basis seem to have been overlooked.[289]

  42.  The DWP's dismissal of the potential of Minimum Income Standards as a basis for measuring child poverty, set out on page 44 of Preliminary conclusions, is at best based on a complete misunderstanding of the issues. As criticism by the DWP will carry weight with the uninformed, it is essential that the points it makes against governmental minimum income standards are answered. There are several detailed points, but I shall mention only two aspects of its criticisms: (a) whose assumptions or judgement are to be taken seriously, and (b) what possible factors should be taken into account in constructing a governmental minimum income standard.

  43.  (a) The DWP is confused about the meaning of subjective assumptions by contrast with objective facts. The version which is relevant to this inquiry is that in which public opinion about poverty standards and deprivation indicators is disparaged as mere subjective opinion, to set against the objective facts of statistical income distributions. In dismissing the potential of scientific research to constructing governmental minimum income standards, the DWP states that "Different research methods tend to make different assumptions that are essentially subjective".[290]This and other dismissive comments are puzzling in a document based entirely on subjective assumptions. But it seems to be no more than a political diversion, perhaps reflecting the resistance to scientific research, which is apparent when one considers that the choice of 60% of median household incomes and the equivalence scales it incorporates as a poverty measure are equally nothing more than subjective assumptions as long as there is no objective factual evidence to support them.

  44.  By contrast, the scientific collection of a large number of individual subjective opinions on what are necessities which no one should be without, or the incomes at which households can only just `make ends meet' (the deprivation indicator and income proxy approaches to poverty), becomes an objective social fact which governments disparage at their peril. Governments treat objective social facts about very subjective public opinion as highly reliable and important in parliamentary elections, and there is no reason for treating them any less seriously when they want to measure poverty, about which the public is not likely to be less well informed.

  45.  If the neutral word "judgement" is substituted for the negative connotations of "subjective assumption", we can see how the DWP documents refer to judgement disparagingly, as if measures which do not involve judgement are to be preferred to those which do. But as with the idea of relativity, there is no conceivable measure which does not involve judgements being made by somebody at some stage. It is notable that the DWP never recognises that the arbitrary decision about which percentage of the median income to take as the poverty measure is nothing more than judgement, but that may be because the decision is taken by officially recognised statisticians. The key issue is who is making the judgement, who recognises a judgement as a valid objective fact or dismisses it as mere subjective opinion, and why?

  46.  To return to productive inquiry and avoid this kind of confusion, it would be better if these unavoidable judgements were made openly by society as a whole (and revealed by reliable social science research) than made by government officials alone, particularly not if there is a risk that any judgements which do not fit the preordained and required political frame of reference are misunderstood or disparaged. As with so much else, judgement must be transparent to public scrutiny and debate, as in the Select Committees current inquiry.

  47.  (b) The DWP's rejection of governmental minimum income standards seems to assume that budget studies are their only basis, and it rejects budget studies for reasons concerned with its misunderstanding about judgement. These are both mistaken assumptions.

  48.  Governmental minimum income standards can be based on whatever publicly credible evidence is accepted that a given level of income roughly corresponds to society's views about adequacy for a decent level of living. The research in 10 countries studied[291] showed that the kinds of acceptable evidence varied. Some countries do indeed use a variety of budget studies, but others use intensive political negotiation between members of parliament, one including representative interest groups of disabled and retired people. One country bases its standards on negotiation of the minimum wage between employers, trade unions and government nominees; others use publicly accepted relationships to wage indices, while another constructs its standards on studies of wage earning households' income and consumption patterns. The point is that to achieve public and political credibility, each country must choose the range of data relevant to its consideration of standards in terms of what its political culture considers to be acceptable.

  49.  In the UK, the Government has already given guidance on what it thinks should guide the formulation of policy, and that is solid evidence—it aims to make "evidence based policy". Entirely in accordance with the Government's preference for evidence, I therefore proposed that in the UK the governmental minimum income standards should be based on the collection of as much evidence as can be collected about the social ills which concern the Government and the public, and the income levels at which these ills are experienced. Such evidence will relate to what the public considers to be deprivation, as well as to what the experts consider to be malnutrition, poor health and excesses of age related morbidity, premature mortality, low educational attainment and so on.

  50.  Such collections of evidence—and there are many sources of data in existence—show that increasing social ills and deprivations correlate quite closely with lower incomes in some instances, only loosely with income but more closely with occupational position in others, and not with income at all in the case of some social ills and experiences of social exclusion. What is essential is to find out which ones do correlate, and at what income levels. This is not a matter for prior decision—it demands to be treated as a study in itself, to be carried out in a proper scientific manner and not subject to political considerations.

  51.  Such a study has not yet been done, but when it has, it is likely that it will find that different social deprivations and ills correlate with the income gradient (making allowances for the differences in the ages and composition of households) at a variety of points on the income scale. Further, some correlations may show a threshold, a change in the income curve where "poverty" can be said to occur, while others may progress more regularly, making it impossible to perceive a distinct poverty threshold. The answers will indeed be "inconsistent", as the DWP complains, but there is no a priori reason to suppose that they should all coincide. Deprivations may occur at many different income levels; the question is, at what level of low income, if any, do they become cumulative and damaging to people's social, psychological and physical health?

  52.  The range of findings is thus not an objection to the method: on the contrary, it is precisely in dealing with such findings that the experts have to use their judgement to interpret both public opinion and scientific views on how much of the morbidity, deprivation or whatever is to be taken as tolerable and how much to be treated as a matter for action. The boundary between the tolerable and the intolerable is a matter not only for experts but one on which the rest of society has important views, and they too must be taken into account. For example, the intolerable deprivations suffered by people in poverty are often treated as tolerable by those who are not poor and do not suffer them. For that reason alone, it is always essential to canvass the judgement of those with the lowest incomes, until the time and point is reached where the ideas of what is adequate, decent and tolerable are no longer different between the mass of society and those with the lowest incomes, and prevailing conditions and incomes are tolerated as decent and dignified by all. At that point, and not before, the Government will know it has abolished poverty, even if not inequality.

  53.  The collection of a range of different types of evidence of deprivations and social ills from many data sources and its intensive comparison and calibration to see what the range of data suggests as the levels of income at which people become deprived and suffer social ills is what I called triangulation. I hope the Select Committee will reiterate its previous recommendation that research be carried out which will facilitate this method of arriving at the evidence-based policy which the Government rightly wants.[292]

  54.  The DWP also criticises governmental minimum income standards because, it believes, it would be difficult to generate a long term and robust time series. The criticism may reflect political fears and incomprehension of issues around the meaning of poverty which are discussed above. There is no greater difficulty in generating time series from poverty as defined by society and measured by governmental minimum income standards than by any other method, and it would be more meaningful than the DWP's misnamed "absolute"[293] method even if not so expedient for the Government.

  55.  Today's poverty is meaningful to the people who experience it and its consequences only in terms of the standards which society sets and expects today. No one will be satisfied to be told by government that those in poverty today are not poor by the outdated standards of the past. Use of this anachronistic pseudo-absolute comparison may appear good for political presentation but cannot expect public credence or scientific support. It is questionable if the DWP should seek to generate misleading political statistics.[294]

  56.  The Role of HM Treasury in Setting Standards of Income Adequacy. Although this is the Work and Pensions Committee's inquiry reviewing DWP activities, the enquiry must also take into account the tacit role of the Treasury in setting income standards. Throughout the open and undisputed rule of less-eligibility in the UK's social assistance system for the past 200 years, the elite standard of comparison for judging income adequacy for the poor has been the lowest levels of wages, modified to some extent since 1945 by allowances for children. Since the increased intervention in adjusting these wage levels introduced by the present government, both through the minimum wage and through the introduction and extension of tax credit provisions, the implicit real minimum comparable standards of income adequacy must have been raised. The Treasury is responsible for these policies but has never publicly revealed its judgement on where the income floor should now stand, yet its calculations implicitly contain such a judgement. If they did not do so, then why should public money be spent on tax credits to raise the floor? Officials must have successfully argued that incomes should not be allowed to fall below this level.

  57.  The Select Committee should invite the Treasury to give evidence on what standards it uses to judge at what level to set the income floors for the combined family benefits, and how it derives them, since this information must form part of the whole picture of government views the Select Committee will want to take into account for child poverty measures.


  58.  Muddles about words. Before the Select Committee comes to a conclusion on the approach to poverty it prefers, it will need to take account of the common confusions, shared by the DWP reports, between concepts, definitions, identifiers, indicators and measures, quite apart from policies. It is analytically naïve to treat, for example, definitions or indicators as synonymous with measures, and to confuse them is to make debate meaningless and analysis futile.

  59.  This section therefore comments on these terms to distinguish definitions from measures, identifiers from indicators, to help the Select Committee to be able to ask the DWP, what concept of poverty is it using? How does the DWP define it? How would the DWP identify its presence or absence? What indicators validly measure progress in abolishing the poverty it has chosen to define? What standards of adequacy, acceptability or sufficiency are embodied in the measures which it has chosen by which to tell if its goals have been achieved, and whose standards are they? If the DWP cannot answer these questions or treats them as naïve or unimportant, how can it expect to make clear and coherent policy?


  60.  Concepts are ideas, and definitions are the precise ways in which they are formulated so that they can be used in specific contexts. In common usage, which includes government, they are very frequently confused with what identifies the phenomenon's presence and the indicators used to observe trends, as well as with the standards used to judge the phenomenon. Words change their meanings in common usage, but there is no point in debate if we do not use agreed terminology. What the Select Committee wants is a measure of something which must first be independently conceptualised and defined before its extent can be measured according to agreed and credible standards.

  61.  Concepts. Taking a broad view, there is little disagreement that the concept of poverty embraces notions of deprived levels of living which are treated as unacceptable in terms of any society's dominant standards. This involves discovering how that society judges and identifies what is and what is not an adequate or satisfactory level of living, one that affords decency, dignity and the means with which to participate to all its members. It is not the same as the broad concept of social exclusion. There is a large literature on that subject, not pursued here, which treats it as a matter of unequal social and power relations with certain social ills as consequences. The reasons for social exclusion, and by extension the Government's concern about social inclusion, may include poverty but not exclusively so. Consequently the policy implications of each are not the same. The Select Committee should clarify its approach to each of these deprivations, of well-being and of power.

  62.  Definitions. When it comes to definition, the precise formulation of what words mean, then there is far more disagreement about poverty. As noted above, some prefer to word the meaning broadly, including not only the condition of an unsatisfactory level of living with all the deprivations that implies but also the causes of that condition, lack of resources and social exclusions.[295] Some also include the network of interlinked consequences of the lack of resources, such as poor nutrition, health, housing, educational achievement, employment opportunities and the like. Judging by the DWP's publications, this is its preferred approach. But it is not helpful for policy formulation to confuse causes, conditions and consequences in one definition. They are inevitably linked but they are analytically distinct.

  63.  Others define the word poverty more narrowly, meaning a specific lack of the money resources—flows of disposable incomes from all sources—by which most kinds of deprivations can be overcome. In increasingly marketised economies, adequate personal purchasing power overcomes all enforced deprivations and even many social exclusions apart from some which are imposed on gender, ethnicity, legal status and age (though in the UK the very rich with these characteristics overcome being "excluded" by them). Decades of research into all kinds of social ills and evils, and into socially defined deprivations, repeatedly shows—as if it were needed to confirm what common sense tells us all—that if one has a reasonable income one does not suffer "an enforced lack of socially perceived necessities" and the deleterious consequences of low levels of living, because one can "buy out" of the deprivations, if one chooses to.

  64.  The Select Committee must decide which definition of poverty it prefers. But to choose a broad concept does not prevent it from adopting a narrower and more precise definition, such as Mack and Lansley's phrase, "an enforced lack of socially perceived necessities".[296] In her evidence to this Select Committee, Professor Ruth Lister proposes a definition of poverty as "an inability to participate in society and to enjoy a standard of living consistent with human dignity and minimum standards of social decency due to lack of resources". The important references here to dignity and decency are reminders that the EU has for many years set the implementation of these concepts as the requirements of each member state's social protection and income maintenance schemes. Since dignity and decency are not measured by income inequality statistics, the Select Committee will want to find a credible definition which includes them.

  65.  Identifiers. How poverty is identified is not the same as its definition. It may be identified very directly by the absence of the elements which society takes as composing an adequate level of living, what have become known as the deprivation indicators following several research studies into what the UK population saw as necessities which no one should be without.[297] It can only be identified by receipt of social security benefits if evidence shows they are inadequate. The Government itself has escaped from the former tautology of identifying those receiving social assistance benefits or at comparable income levels as being poor.

  66.  However, when there is reliable evidence of the income levels at which these lacks of socially perceived necessities occur or social and material well-being is not achieved, then the common indirect or proxy identifier of poverty can be a low income level. But while a low level associated with deprivations is an identifier of poverty, it is not in itself a definition of poverty, nor is it a measure of poverty if it is not supported by hard scientific evidence that this is (making all necessary allowances for variations) the income level which on average divides those in poverty from those who are not. Until the Government provides hard evidence for scientific scrutiny, we have to continue to base our judgement on old evidence which suggested that it's HBAI low income measure may be an identifier of people in poverty but it is not a measure of what separates poverty from not-poverty as society defines it. The question demands scientific testing—it cannot be settled by official prescription.

  67.  Indicators. The DWP makes much use of indicators of deprived social conditions in its annual reports, Opportunity for all, as well as in its consultation reports. Many of these are trend markers; that is, they show in which direction and how far a particular factor is moving. Although the DWP seems to treat them as substitutes for poverty measures, they are very different—as all footballers know, improvements in striking are by no means the same as goals achieved. Indicators have an essential place in monitoring policies to see that they are moving in the right direction, but the markers used do not embody value judgements in the same way as the choice of goals do. Benchmarks and mileposts tell you where you are or how far you have gone, not that you have reached your destination. That is the role of goalposts, of socially defined standards.

  68.  Standards. A significant task for the Select Committee must be to review what evaluative standards should be used by the UK to identify and measure child poverty, once it has decided what child poverty is. All the references to human dignity and decency in levels of living, to participation in society, to socially defined levels of well-being, or to adequacy or sufficiency of incomes and other essential resources, have to be turned from abstract expressions of values into concrete expressions of what they mean in the UK at this time.

  69.  The fundamental question is whose standards? Are they to be the standards which satisfy the Government, whether or not they are credible to the UK population as a whole, or are they to be society's own standards whether or not the Government find them politically congenial? Are they to be stratified socially or the same for all those in the UK?

  70.  Stratification. The critical distinction between sources of judgement standards ever since poverty studies started in the UK at the end of the 19th century has been between standards imposed or prescribed by the ruling classes ("good enough for the poor") and standards derived from scientific research into what the population itself judged to be poverty and adequacy ("good enough for us all"). The fact that UK Governments have never welcomed the scientific findings of research into society's own poverty standards cannot be used as an indefeasible argument against recognising that they exist and have more justification for use than the exigencies of the Government's budgetary or labour market policies. What is needed to avoid poverty has often been inexcusably confused with, and obscured beneath, government claims about what can be afforded. They are not the same.

  71.  If the standards are to be those of the UK population as a whole, then the Government must take steps to find out what they are. If the Government fails to do this, then it risks discrediting the whole enterprise of "abolishing child poverty" if it is later found that deprivations persist which the population experience as poverty even if the DWP says it has been abolished. Instead, the Select Committee should recommend what the Council of the European Community recommended in 1992, that the Government should find out what amount of resources were needed to respect human dignity as the UK population defines it.[298] The technicalities of the research may be complicated but are not difficult and the Select Committee will no doubt receive proposals, as the DWP should from its expert panel of advisers.

  72.  The Select Committee will want to examine the status of the standards to be embodied in any child poverty measure, to see if they are those which research finds are held by UK society, or those chosen by government for political reasons, and to express clearly which view it takes.

  73.  Measures, absolute and relative. The DWP refers to the statistical HBAI measure of income inequality as a relative measure, as if using the adjective "relative" would attract support from those who condemn absolute and commend relative measures of poverty. In fact it is impossible for any measures not to be relative, except perhaps for absolute measures of temperature. All social measures are relative to social context, time, place and observer, and this applies with equal force to all conceivable measures of poverty. The only meaningful question is "relative to what?"

  74.  The Government wants measures which will show what movements have taken place over time since some arbitrary starting point (such as the HBAI statistics in 1997-98) by comparison with the standards effective at the starting date and the standards operative at present. It calls the first of these absolute and the second relative. This is a confusing and unusual use of terms and they should be avoided. It also wants statistical series which will allow both of these comparisons over time. Both can be achieved by governmental minimum income standards measures of the kind outlined above, provided the anachronism of comparing current poverty with past standards is admitted and once the appropriate recalculations are made to allow for periodic changes in the composition of the component base of comparison and more frequent changes in the price of the components.

  75.  It would help the debate if the Select Committee were to avoid describing inequality measures as if they were the only relative poverty measures available, and would distinguish poverty measures not by whether they seemed absolute or relative but by whether they were derived from scientific research, or from official prescriptions based on political expediency.


  76.  The Select Committee wants to be able to recommend the way in which the UK Government should go about setting a standard for child poverty and using it in a measure to identify and count the number of children in poverty by that standard. In this submission I have tried to explain a number of the contentious issues which arise in any attempt to find or set standards or devise measures. The contention arises at all levels from the conceptualisation of the problem through to the technicalities of the implementation.

  77.  Some of what I have put before the Select Committee might not have been needed if the DWP had not itself published a consultation document on the subject and a report on its preliminary conclusions. Both of these official documents usefully reflect the current official understanding and approach to these questions, but they are regrettably so filled with confusions between scientific analysis and presentational expediencies, as well as with misunderstandings of research and methodological issues in this field, that they cannot be treated by the Select Committee as any basis for further action at present.

  78.  Instead, the issues in this paper will inevitably arise in any deliberations on which approach to use. Since the Select Committee is not bound by political expediency as the DWP is, but only by what can feasibly be done by all democratic governments to monitor and abolish child poverty, I hope that they will be useful to the Select Committee in making its recommendations.

269   Scientists differ on whether people are aware of all their authentic needs, unmet as well as met, but agree that, whatever they are, they must be expressed within that society's own common culture and not some other. Back

270   Social Security Committee (2001), Integrated Child Credit, HC72, paragraphs 24 and 25. Back

271   For more details, see J Veit-Wilson (1998), Setting Adequacy Standards: How governments define minimum incomes, The Policy Press, Bristol. Back

272   BBC Radio 4, "Inside Money", 3 August 2002. Back

273   See for example the historical record of UK government policy on this subject reported in my evidence to the Social Services Select Committee's Enquiry into Minimum Incomes in 1989 (HOC Paper 579) and research on the 1965 Windsor Report on the National Assistance Scale Rates (Veit-Wilson 1999a, listed in appendix A).  Back

274   See Veit-Wilson (1998), Setting Adequacy Standards, cited above, chapter 4. Back

275   Tony Blair, BBC Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman, 4 June 2001. See Appendix A paragraph 29. Back

276   Council of the European Union, Social Protection Committee (25.11.2002), Fight against poverty and social exclusion: common objectives for the second round of National Action Plans, 14164/1/02, Annex to annex 2, `Objectives' (section 1.2 (a)); DWP (2003), United Kingdom National Action Plan on Social Inclusion 2003-05, (see section 3.2.2). Back

277   D Gordon et al (2000), Poverty and social exclusion in Britain, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York. Back

278   DWP (2003), Measuring child poverty: preliminary conclusions. Back

279   See Gordon et al (2000) cited above. Back

280   See K Van den Bosch (2001), Identifying the Poor, Ashgate, Aldershot. Back

281   S Middleton (2000), "Agreeing Poverty Lines: The Development of Consensual Budget Standards Methodology", in J Bradshaw and R Sainsbury (eds), Researching Poverty, Ashgate, Aldershot. Back

282   Council of the European Union, Social Protection Committee (25.11. 2002), cited above; emphasis added to this and the subsequent quotations.  Back

283   European Community, Council Recommendation of 24 June 1992, 92/441/EEC, paragraph (6).1.C.3, and elsewhere. Back

284   UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Draft Guidelines: A Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategies, 10.9.2002, Guideline 12, p 42. Back

285   European Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers, 1989, paragraph 5.  Back

286   ibid, paragraph 10. Back

287   European Commission, Joint Report on Social Inclusion; Employment and Social Affairs, 2002, p 27. Back

288   C Citro and R Michael (1995), Measuring Poverty, National Academy Press, Washington DC. Back

289   House of Commons Paper HC72, paragraphs 24 and 25. Back

290   DWP (2003), Preliminary conclusions, p 44.  Back

291   For details, see Veit-Wilson (1998), Setting Adequacy Standards, cited above. Back

292   House of Commons Paper HC72, paragraphs 24 and 25. Back

293   For a note on the DWP's use of the terms absolute and relative, see below. Back

294   Provided the DWP generates good statistics on the movements in current governmental minimum income standards and poverty measured by them, then historians can make the required adjustments to make anachronistic comparisons for themselves if they wish. Back

295   Those who think that the causes of poverty include such conditions as unemployment, lone parenthood, disability and old age, should recall that these conditions are found right across UK society up to the very highest and richest levels without causing deprivations or exclusions. The cause of poverty is the lack of adequate incomes which is a consequence of these conditions for most people if the government's income maintenance system is inadequate and ineffective. Back

296   J Mack and S Lansley (1985), Poor Britain, Allen and Unwin, London, p 39. Back

297   See for example Gordon et al (2000), cited above. Back

298   Council Recommendation of 24 June 1992 on common criteria concerning sufficient resources and social assistance in social protection schemes, 92/441/EEC (also known as the Minimum Income Recommendations). Back

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