Frank Young is political director at the Centre for Social Justice
Today’s Opposition Day debates in the Commons on Universal Credit and free school meals would commit the Government to spending an additional £9 billion a year on Universal Credit: whatever the welfare plan, its costs are always huge.
The Government should be given credit for stepping in quickly at a time of crisis. It acted fast to provide an uplift for recipients of Universal Credit. Nonetheless, the debates will bring into painful focus the lack of a coherent approach to tackling poverty.
The absence of such a strategy has left ministers haplessly exposed, and gifted their opponents a moral high ground. A government in want of a thought-through approach to poverty is also a government that will find itself constantly accused of being uncaring – and vulnerable to excitable campaigns to expose this supposed malice.
It is always tempting to try and answer the question ‘how many people are poor’ by drawing a line in the sand. Some sophisticated attempts have been made to identify much deeper poverty, isolating groups of people from the ebbs and flows of average wealth. This absolutist approach takes us much closer to what most people would recognise as ‘poverty’.
At any rate, the David Cameron-era 2016 Work and Welfare Act is the closest the Government comes to having an official poverty measure. This Act compels the Government to publish a set of child poverty statistics based on a relative measure of 60 per cent of median incomes, and a more severe absolute measure of poverty based on the same measure from 2011 and adjusted for inflation. That 60 per cent figure is close to a religious creed among poverty campaigners. In consequence, they are able to say that each year roughly one in five of us are living in poverty.
There a plenty of voices from poverty charities and experts encouraging a different approach, arguing for a different poverty measure – or measuring relative poverty in a more detailed way.
Some charities call for the introduction of a minimum income measure, whereby an income of almost £37,000 for a family of four would be needed to avoid being considered poor. Others attempt to find a more sophisticated way of measuring the number of people who fall below a line – and those who persistently fall a long way below it.
Increasingly, poverty campaigners are calling absolute poverty “destitution”, as the word “poverty” itself becomes devalued. The Government itself seems as perplexed as everyone else, having published “experimental” poverty statistics a little more than a year ago, which are still based on a measure of poverty relative to average incomes.
But the reduction of poverty to a single, relative number distracts attention from a serious long-term approach by reducing the misery of poverty to a simple transactional approach to calm Twitter for a day. This is the realpolitik of poverty measurement. And at its worst, this “line-ist” approach leads to ministers focusing their efforts on moving people above an imagined line so they are no longer ‘poor’ – which does nothing to solve persistent problems.
Though low income is a useful proxy measure, it does not tell the full story of an individual’s situation. Often, living on a very low income is a symptom of deeper difficulties. There are five million illiterate adults in the UK, so the long-term answer to poverty for them is help to read and write. This kind of approach tackles the root causes of poverty, not just the symptoms.
It is more than four years since David Cameron came within a matter of days of announcing a Life Chances Strategy based on the lived reality of poverty and a route map out of it. Mandarins might want to go further back to find answers in a framework of social justice measures pioneered in the early days of the Coalition Government. These focused the government on outcomes that reduced family breakdown and dysfunction, improved recovery from addiction, provided help into work, and ensured that our education system helps children growing up in poor households.
There is plenty of support on the backbenches for an ambitious approach – such as the MPs who attend the Social Justice Caucus of Conservative MPs each week. The Social Justice Outcomes Framework was put together to give governments the right targets to tackle poverty. They are still available through a simple Google search, and should be updated and re-instated as the focus of a long-term government poverty strategy. If the Prime Minster is looking for such a plan, he could do worse than dust off some of the old hits and set to work with a grand plan to tackle the root causes of poverty.