Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence



  1.  The UK Government has repeatedly stated that it cannot try to find a scientifically reliable basis for income poverty measures or governmental minimum income standards because "the experts do not agree". That is because the experts have not been asked to pool their expertise in the solution of a common problem. Instead, governments have consulted them each individually as experts in their own fields and then non-scientific officials try to synthesise their advice in politically-expedient ways, as the DWP's reports show. If the Government adopted the Select Committee's previous recommendation to sponsor research to enable expert judgement on triangulation to take place, it might find the reliable scientific agreement it seeks. The Select Committee should repeat this advice. We must also hope that the DWP's newly appointed panel of expert advisers will be able to act collectively to find agreement on the measures to adopt.

  2.  The Select Committee is itself expert in the political objectives of policy research and implementation and will well understand how these differ from those of science. The audiences for political solutions to problems are quite different from those for scientific problems, and they want different kinds of answers. The DWP rightly says that the choice of poverty measure must be publicly credible, but which public does it have in mind? The media are the most salient publics for most political purposes, together with the sections of the electorate to be retained or attracted. It is the media who are the prime customers for the headline measures of child poverty which the DWP wants, but the simplicity of a headline is incompatible with the complex findings of science, hedged around by reservations and qualifications as they are. We constantly see this in the media presentation of natural science findings and it is even more true in the fields of social science.

  3.  Poverty is conceptualised by the whole of society as a lack of welfare by its common standards. The rich can say "I would be poor if . . ." and the poor can reply that they are poor by that definition. Those who know most about what poverty means in their daily lives—people on low incomes—are unlikely to find credible the Government's adoption of an assumed income measure which implies that if they have incomes above that level but are still poor as society sees it, their deprivations must be their own fault ("blaming the victim") and not the fault of the Government which has failed to ensure that they have adequate incomes. This is the likely outcome of the adoption of an arbitrary statistical assumption about income inequality as the official measure of income adequacy, or indeed any measure which has not been tested by thorough research which provides reliable evidence of what the population as a whole take it to mean.

  4.  There are many current examples of the difference between the requirements of government scientific advice and of government policy making in the public eye and this is one of them. There are inherent conflicts in both aims and methods which bedevil this debate. When the Select Committee deliberates over "what is evidence?" it must distinguish their approaches. The issue is not idealistic differences but practical constraints of aims and methods. The problems include disciplinary differences in problem identification, conflicts of expert advice, and incompatibility with political objectives.

  5. Social scientists are being asked to offer advice on how to measure the social phenomenon of poverty. Some are experts on the variety of styles of living in society, including those which are socially defined as unacceptable. Some are expert in measuring the distribution of resources of many kinds, but without necessarily being experts in what resources or how much of them are needed to avoid certain styles of life. Some are experts in the inputs (such as nutrition and socialisation) and the outcomes (such as education and health) which may themselves be taken as causes, conditions or consequences of the dynamics of poverty and which are publicly seen as social ills or evils. Other branches of scientific expertise are of course also involved.

  6.  What should be common to them is a commitment to scientific method: the use of their disciplines' expert knowledge and skills to study and produce findings which are recognised as having integrity in terms of the paradigms and assumptions of their scientific discipline and branch of expertise. Unfortunately, each discipline may have the competence to study only some part of the whole problem[299] as the politicians have identified it, even though some of its practitioners have to incorporate assumptions from other fields in order to carry out their own work.

  7.  In the field of poverty studies, the chief example of this conflict is between (a) those social scientists who study the social realities of deprivations etc and from them arrive at the hard formulations of the definition of poverty and the measures relevant to that definition, and (b) those social scientists who make an assumption that poverty is what they say it is, and then formulate their definition and measures on the basis of their prior prescription. Either society defines poverty, and the income poverty line then is a statistical derivative of social definitions, or the statistician assumes that a certain percentage of average incomes is to be taken as a proxy for this, whether the evidence shows that it is reliable or not. There is no bridge between the two approaches: they are in conflict in terms of the source of authority for their claims that poverty is one thing or another. One judges on the basis of evidence, the other on the basis of formal theoretical systems.

  8.  We can joke about Humpty Dumpty insisting that words mean what he wants them to mean, whether or not that is the customary shared meaning in common usage, and about the shipwrecked economist who solves the problem of how to open a tin of food by assuming that he has a tin opener. But the problem of child poverty and its consequences is far too serious for jokes. Poverty does not mean what politicians and officials want it to mean; it means what the society in which it occurs customarily takes it to mean. Similarly, poverty does not occur at the percentage of the income distribution which the statistician takes as the formal assumption for the purpose of the national HBAI statistics; it is found where incomes are too low to prevent it according to the definition of poverty which society holds. Making formal assumptions is simply irrelevant to finding out what poverty is and who is in it. Thus measuring the inequality of incomes by statistical methods is socially valuable, but telling us that the poverty line is at 60% of median household incomes is a mere formal assumption which has no social value at all.

  9.  The role of social statisticians is absolutely indispensable in the calculations which translate the findings of the social research into how a society defines and identifies poverty and deprivation into the data with which comparisons of all kinds can be made and policies formulated. But the only way of discovering what society as a whole understands by the meaning of poverty is to carry out social research on the whole population and that is the expertise of applied forms of the disciplines of sociology and psychology. Why not economics? Because economics (as a discipline—I am not referring to the admirable abilities of some of the people who practice it) has not got the conceptual tools to articulate and analyse human values, meanings and motives, and in their absence the evaluative concept of poverty ("this is an unacceptable level of welfare") cannot be understood.

  10.  The interdisciplinary research of using both qualitative sociological and quantitative statistical methods to discover at what percentage of average incomes people in UK society do not experience what UK society defines as poverty has not yet been done by government, but it could and should be.[300] This data would then form a significant part of the collection of evidence about the relation between resources and deprivations (including ill-health and other adverse life experiences) which the government's experts should triangulate to work towards setting governmental minimum income standards for the UK.

  11.  Many of the submissions which the Select Committee receives will support the Government continuing to collect and publish the income inequality statistics. But in some cases this is not because their authors believe that HBAI is the ideal method of measuring poverty, but because these statistics should be published in their own right, and until there are evidence based poverty measures, the inequality statistics are the only substitute available.

  12. The Select Committee will greatly help the debate by distinguishing clearly and explicitly between scientific and political approaches to the measurement and policy questions.

Professor John Veit Wilson

15 September 2003

299   As in the story of the committee of blind men describing an elephant by each feeling one part of it, a trunk, a leg, an ear and so on. Pity the poor officials who, being unfamiliar with an elephant, have to draw it from such partial descriptions, where the political requirement is an animal stronger than a horse. Back

300   And if it is not done by government researchers, then government should fund independent research institutes to carry it out. Back

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