Dodgy maths, lazy assertions

One of the more obvious hostages in fortune in the coalition agreement was always going to be the pledge to stick to the commitment to end child poverty by 2020.

Abandoning the legally-binding targets set by the Labour government would have sent out all the wrong signals (especially for the Lib Dems) from the outset of the coalition. Yet even as the pledge was being made it was obvious that the government’s austerity measures were going to make child poverty worse rather than better.

And yesterday the contradictions were laid bare in two contrasting reports from the United Nations agency UNICEF and the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). The first concludes that current policies will reverse progress on eliminating child poverty and that the government should stick to the 2020 target as ‘a political focus on the poorest children in this time of exceptional financial pressure on families is at the heart of successfully protecting the most vulnerable in our society’. The second argues that the income-based measures at the heart of the 2020 target are inadequate and should be scrapped in favour of measures that ‘focus on the root causes of deprivation and the social breakdown which fuels it, not the symptoms’.

Given that the CSJ was set up by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and its co-founder is his current special advisor, it does not require a great leap to assume that the report is likely to reflect the thinking at the DWP. So expect more emphasis and moral and behavioural rather than material explanations of poverty in general and an attempt to scrap the key 60 per cent of median income child poverty measure in particular.

Yet if this report is anything to go by we can also expect a new policy riddled with errors and lazy assertions. Take this, for example:

‘It is clear that during Labour’s 13 years in office, there was only a six per cent reduction in the number of children deemed to be in poverty, on the basis of this measure. This is despite astonishingly high levels of income redistribution. For instance, between 2004 and 2010, £150 billion was spent on Tax Credits as a means of marginally increasing the income of individuals. It is patently obvious that this approach has failed.’

Yet turn the page and you will find that the proportion of children in poverty actually fell from 27 per cent to 21 per cent between 1997/98 and 2009/10: six percentage points, yes, but elementary maths says that the actual improvement was 22 per cent.

Flick forward a few pages and you will find this claim:

‘It is widely accepted that work is the best and most sustainable route out of poverty. Research shows that poverty and entrenched or persistent worklessness are often intergenerational.’

‘Widely accepted’ by Labour too, which was the whole point of the welfare to work and tax credit policies (even if there were doubts about relying too heavily on work as the solution), but that is not enough for the CSJ. Instead it returns to the claims of the 1970s and 1980s about the ‘cycle of deprivation’ and the ‘underclass’ that were widely discredited at the time. And being in work is no longer enough if that work is part-time and still relies on benefit (notably housing benefit, where 93 per cent of new claims made since the election are by people in work).

The CSJ is right that no single measure of child poverty will ever be enough to cover all aspects of the problem although, as it points out, the Child Poverty Act actually has four different targets (relative low income, combined low income and material deprivation, absolute low income and persistent poverty). It is also right that it is ‘unfortunate’ that the DWP discontinued publication of its Opportunity for All reports that tracked a wider range of social indicators.

However, the whole point of measures is that they enable comparisons over time and between countries and the whole point of the Child Poverty Act targets is to hold the government to account. The CSJ is just muddying the water with dodgy maths and even lazier assertions that child poverty is caused by the behaviour of the parents rather than deeper inequalities in society. And it is preparing the ground for further ‘reform’ of welfare.

(Apologies to anyone who subscribes on WordPress – I think you probably got notified of this post more than once)

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2 Comments on “Dodgy maths, lazy assertions”

  1. benlowndes says:

    I got notified twice – that’s a really worrying error which has been used to then wrongly make a point. Depressing stuff all round.

  2. […] What Cameron said should not have come as a great surprise to anyone. In April plans leaked of a Downing Street/DWP plan to cut housing benefit for the under-25s (see my blog here) as part of a plan to cut welfare by another £10 billion and in May the Telegraph reported plans for lower regional caps and a crackdown on part-time workers as elements of a programme to save £25 billion (here). That’s all in the context of the downgrading of legally-binding targets to eradicate child poverty (here). […]


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