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A new way of understanding poverty

Posted on 15 June 2012 .

The debate about how to measure child poverty in the UK is back on the political agenda.  It has coincided with news that the number of children living in poverty in the UK fell by 300,000 last year.  These official poverty figures estimate the number of children living in households with income below 60% of the median UK income - which is £384 per week for a couple with two children (before they’ve paid their housing costs).

Although a reduction in the child poverty figures appears to be good news for the government, some anticipate that child poverty will rise in the future.  And this will mean that the government will fail to hit child poverty reduction targets that were set out in the Child Poverty Act, namely to eliminate child poverty by 2020.  Recently the Centre for Social Justice has suggested that eliminating child poverty is technically impossible because the way it is measured means ‘that the poor will always exist statistically’.  This is not true, but the debate about how to measure poverty rages on.

The criticisms of an income-based poverty measure are well established. One such criticism is that it doesn't capture the lived experience of poverty in all its complexity, particularly the interactions between debts, financial worries, housing problems and neighbourhood deprivation.  Our research has shown that poverty is also linked to educational, health and social disadvantages for children and for many it’s the cumulative experience of poverty which has the greatest impact on their lives.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has said the government remained committed to the Child Poverty Act targets but that it was "increasingly clear that poverty is not about income alone".  He has proposed a green paper looking at additional non-income indicators of poverty.  Research that we are conducting may help shed light on how these non-income indicators of poverty could be useful for understanding poverty as a multidimensional experience.

We’re working with Demos, on a project sponsored by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, to identify multidimensional poverty typologies. The premise of our typologies is that low income is essential to poverty, but that those experiencing low income are not all the same: they face different combinations of other disadvantages too, such as worklessness, low education, poor housing, material deprivation and ill health, to name but a few.  As all families living on a low income do not have the same set of disadvantages, different policy solutions may be suited to the different experiences of poverty.

The research that underpins our new poverty typology will combine statistical analysis of the new Understanding Society data set, with in-depth qualitative work with those in the different poverty types. Demos will be evaluating the policy implications of our findings, and developing and piloting a toolkit which will enable our analysis to be used by front-line practitioners and policy makers to tackle poverty in a more nuanced way.

This study will provide a new narrative around poverty, as much as the policy and practice set up to tackle it. First findings will be available in the autumn of 2012 and you can follow the progress of the project here, or contact myself if you'd like any further information.
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