There are a number of measures of child poverty and all agree that child poverty is rising. Tonight’s Channel 4’s Dispatches programme “Growing up Poor” gives some of the children affected by poverty the chance to tell their own stories – and is incredibly powerful as a result.
It is great that for one hour we will hear these stories but, as over one third – 4.6 million children – of the UK’s children are locked in poverty, perhaps they and their families deserve a great deal more airtime over the next 10 days.
Assessing the rise in child poverty
One of the problems of holding politicians to account over the issue of poverty is that there are a number of ways of measuring it. For policymakers and academics trying to understand poverty, each of these measures provides useful information that helps describe a very complicated problem. For some politicians however it has offered the opportunity to pick a number that best suits the story they wish to tell.
We have, however, reached the unhappy position where the measures all agree – child poverty is rising and without significant changes either in public policy or in the wider economy (or both) it is likely to continue to rise.
Relative or absolute
There are two measures of poverty often quoted – absolute and relative. Relative poverty looks at how much money families have in comparison to the average, median, family. It asks the question: how well are low-income families doing compared to the average family? Changes to the average income and to the income of the poorest can affect this measure.
The absolute child poverty measure takes the poverty threshold of 2011 and links it to inflation. It asks the question: are the incomes of low income families rising or falling compared to 2011? This measure is not affected by changes in the average income.
This has been an unusual decade. There has been low inflation, low earnings growth, and median incomes have stayed flat. The two measures took different paths for a few years, with absolute poverty falling and relative poverty staying flat, which indicated that the distance between the bottom and the middle decreased. The story changed mid-decade, first with relative poverty increasing and then absolute poverty increasing too. This indicates that the incomes of the poorest are now falling both in real terms as well as relative to the average. That is unusual and troubling.
A better measure of poverty
A group of people from charities, academics and think-tanks from across the political spectrum got together to design a new poverty measure. The measure looks at both income and expenses and takes into account the different needs of particular groups such as children, the elderly or the disabled. The group was chaired by Baroness Stroud, who is a Conservative peer and formerly Iain Duncan Smith’s special advisor.
This new measure from the Social Metrics Commission has been accepted across the political divides and will form the basis of a new government measure of poverty. This is the measure of poverty JPIT will use and to avoid confusion we won’t use others without making it very clear. Other organisations are doing the same and we hope that Government and politicians will follow.
This measure states that 34% of children were in poverty in 2017/18, which is 4.6 million children. That is appalling. Changing it must be a priority for the next government.
Voices that represent millions of others.
The Channel 4 dispatches programme lets children held back by poverty speak for themselves. We should listen. We should listen knowing that the best data we have is that there are millions of children like them and that that number is increasing. We know that experiencing poverty holds children back, in terms of health, education, income and even life expectancy. We know that the bible speaks a great deal about our responsibility towards the poorest in society.
What you will see in the documentary is children fearfully and wonderfully made by God, with huge potential bursting to get out. When we look at the political party manifestos this election season, I urge you to ask yourselves: how can my vote help unlock that potential and lift families from poverty?
 These are each measured before housing costs or after housing costs. This means that there are four potential accurate numbers for “income poverty”. Each is useful in understanding UK poverty but careless (or even very careful) quoting of the numbers can give a very inaccurate impression.
 P28 of the 2019 report. 2017/18 is the most recent data available although other data indicates the trend is continuing upwards.