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.
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.
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.
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.
1. THE GOVERNMENT'S
8. The Minister Malcolm Wicks MP himself
described the search for scientific poverty measures as "a
Holy Grail that is absurd to pursue".
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.
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
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.
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.
2. THE POLICY
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.
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.
These issues are discussed further below, as well as in Appendix
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
3. WHAT IS
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 childwe 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
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;
(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.
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
29. The conclusion is inescapable. As the
". . . 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)
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.
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.
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
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;
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.
4. THE EUROPEAN
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",
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".
The UN suggests this should achieve a level of living which enables
the poorest to "appear in public without shame".
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"
and to "adequate social protection".
In the EU, adequacy means "a sufficient income to lead a
life with dignity and to participate in society as full members".
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.
5. AND 6. POLITICAL
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).
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.
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
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".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
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
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 evidenceit 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 evidenceand
there are many sources of data in existenceshow 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 decisionit
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
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"
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
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.
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 resourcesflows
of disposable incomes from all sourcesby 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 showsas
if it were needed to confirm what common sense tells us allthat
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".
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
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.
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
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 testingit
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
differentas 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
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.
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
Social Security Committee (2001), Integrated Child Credit, HC72,
paragraphs 24 and 25. Back
For more details, see J Veit-Wilson (1998), Setting Adequacy
Standards: How governments define minimum incomes, The Policy
Press, Bristol. Back
BBC Radio 4, "Inside Money", 3 August 2002. Back
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
See Veit-Wilson (1998), Setting Adequacy Standards, cited
above, chapter 4. Back
Tony Blair, BBC Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman, 4 June
2001. See Appendix A paragraph 29. Back
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
D Gordon et al (2000), Poverty and social exclusion in
Britain, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York. Back
DWP (2003), Measuring child poverty: preliminary conclusions. Back
See Gordon et al (2000) cited above. Back
See K Van den Bosch (2001), Identifying the Poor, Ashgate,
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
Council of the European Union, Social Protection Committee (25.11.
2002), cited above; emphasis added to this and the subsequent
European Community, Council Recommendation of 24 June 1992, 92/441/EEC,
paragraph (6).1.C.3, and elsewhere. Back
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Draft Guidelines: A Human
Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategies, 10.9.2002, Guideline
12, p 42. Back
European Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of
Workers, 1989, paragraph 5. Back
ibid, paragraph 10. Back
European Commission, Joint Report on Social Inclusion; Employment
and Social Affairs, 2002, p 27. Back
C Citro and R Michael (1995), Measuring Poverty, National Academy
Press, Washington DC. Back
House of Commons Paper HC72, paragraphs 24 and 25. Back
DWP (2003), Preliminary conclusions, p 44. Back
For details, see Veit-Wilson (1998), Setting Adequacy
Standards, cited above. Back
House of Commons Paper HC72, paragraphs 24 and 25. Back
For a note on the DWP's use of the terms absolute and relative,
see below. Back
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
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
J Mack and S Lansley (1985), Poor Britain, Allen and Unwin, London,
p 39. Back
See for example Gordon et al (2000), cited above. Back
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