I went to a discussion on child poverty at the Policy Exchange on Monday.
Frank Field, who has a long track record in this area, said there were three things he wanted to say:
1. Existing methods of assessting poverty data should be abolished.
2. Public opinion is ready to look at life chances (I think he said this as an alternative to the existing measures of poverty)
3. The existing measures of poverty are bad partly because they don’t measure the extremes. “Why are food banks doing such a trade?”
For at least two of the five speakers, the other definite one being Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, the official method of measuring poverty is highly unsatisfactory. The two speakers who worked for charities dealing with poverty, The Rowntree Foundation and the Child Poverty Action Group, seemed more content with it. The revised idea of poverty is that someone is in poverty if their income is below 60% of median income. This measure has apparently been joined together with three other measures for the Child Poverty Act which was passed by the previous Labour government. This act requires annual reporting and suchlike.
Fraser Nelson suggested that Gordon Brown had used the tax credit to give people just enough cash so that they were ‘lifted out of poverty’. They would rise from just below 60% of the median wages to just above. So Brown could boast about poverty reduction. This was a political fix and, implicitly, not getting to the root of the problem. A member of the audience said he was a current (or former) civil servant and he vehemently denied that any such political calculation was involved. But while he was clearly not aware of such calculation, that does not prove it was not happening. To be sure, one would have to be able to perceive Gordon Brown’s innermost thoughts.
One of the most telling comments was from Chris Goulden, of the Rowntree Foundation. Apparently half of us all will, at some point in our lives, be defined as being ‘in poverty’. That does suggest that the measure is faulty. It also reminds me of the study that was done by the Government when Peter Lilley was at the Department of Social Security (as it was called then). The officials found that there among the officially lowest-income tenth of society, there was a disproportionately large number of accountants and builders. In other words, many of those who officially are poor are not. What one wants to know about, in reality, is who are actually living without enough food? Who has no shelter? And who experiences parenting and schooling and a neighbourhood that will lead them into a bad and unhappy life?
Frank Field was strong on this. He said he asked a head of a school what proportion of the children in his school did he think should be in care if money was no object. The head said 20%. Frank Field said that during his time as an MP he had seem a big rise in gratuitous violence against children – terrible parenting. He was appalled at the self-centredness of parents. He wanted lessons in parenting for children. He quoted another head as saying that the much trumpeted Sure Start programme had resulted in no improvement in the preparation of children. In fact they were worse.
Neil O’Brien, director of Policy Exchange, had a chart showing the number of children brought up in households where the parents had ‘never worked’ was going up. (He also showed one with the number of teenage pregnancies falling in recent years. I wonder what has caused that?) I think he also said that half of all prostitutes had been in care as children.
Frank Field said the the Rowntree Foundation had an ‘iron grip on this debate’ and it was all about income disparity, not about the kind of things that Frank Field was talking about. The Rowntree Foundation denied this and said that the Foundation did plenty of ‘qualitative’ work. Perhaps that work was not quite what Frank Field had in mind.
But it was hard to avoid the feeling during the limited time I was there that the representatives of the charities were the most political people there – they belonged to the statistical poverty party. They talked about correlations and multi-deprivation. They did not talk about human beings leading lives that were damaging to themselves and others and how could we combat that?
I think there is a danger for some people that want to believe it is all about money. Then they can always go on arguing, ‘it is awful, there is multi-deprivation, the government should give more money’. It is a nice, simple argument. But if I believe that those at the tough end of society need to be helped in rather different ways than just giving them money.