Opinion and prejudice in child poverty research

7013_564235406927344_1580670401_n(1)Nine in ten people wrongly believe that drug and alcohol addiction are a main cause of child poverty in the UK, according to a recent DWP survey. Dr Kirsten Besemer, researcher at IHURER and member of the Poverty and Social Exclusion UK team, explains how child poverty measures can incorporate public opinion while avoiding unfounded prejudice.

I’m sometimes tempted to avoid telling strangers what I do for a living. Whenever I admit I research poverty in the UK, I’m likely to end up getting a well-meant lecture on my own subject. In this way, I discovered that some people genuinely think poverty is a kind of misguided lifestyle choice, or a typical consequence of irresponsible behaviour. I’ve also been told that child poverty is caused when feckless parents, who just laze around and drink, have children they can’t afford and then bring them up to spend their lives on benefits. So, it is argued that anything we do to help these children will only encourage irresponsible parents to have more children, resulting in ever more children being born in poverty.

The trouble is that there is rather a wide gap between these public myths and the reality of poverty in the UK. Though over 90% of people in the UK think otherwise, child poverty is rarely caused by parents’ drug or alcohol abuse. Statistics show that only a tiny percentage of all parents are addicts, and only some of those few addicted parents are poor. In fact, people with higher incomes typically tend to drink more than those who earn less, and heavy drinking is a problem most strongly associated with being wealthy. While I’m correcting prejudices, I’ll add that most children in poverty are not from workless households, and workless parents are typically extremely motivated to ensure their children do not end up in the same situation. Widespread assumptions about poverty can be completely false, and it is a serious problem if policy becomes informed by such fictions. Blaming poor people for their own poverty is a rather easy excuse to do nothing about it.

This issue is particularly relevant at the moment, in the light of the government’s recent public consultation on a new way to measure child poverty. It has been widely pointed out that this consultation seemed somewhat suspiciously timed, after a report by the IFS predicted that current government policy will almost certainly reverse all of the last few years’ progress in child poverty reduction. Some newspapers suggested that the government may be trying to shift the goal posts instead of meeting its 2020 child poverty target. As I recently co-authored a book chapter on child poverty measurement with my research team member Gill Main in York, we decided to respond to the consultation, and give our opinion about how child poverty ought to be measured.

Child poverty is only rarely a consequence of parents' drug and alcohol abuse.
Child poverty is only rarely a consequence of parents’ drug and alcohol abuse.

Like many others, we felt the consultation documents were a rather alarming indicator of the government’s mindset. The consultation document, which was supposed to provide background information ignored most of the considerable body of UK poverty research. Strangely enough, the author who wrote the background document appeared to think that at the moment, poverty is only measured by income (there is a wide range of measures), and regularly confused poverty with its causes and consequences. More worrying still, the document suggested broadening the definition of poverty to include all sorts of problems that are not at all specific to poor children, including bad parenting, “unstable families”, poor health, and drug and alcohol abuse. Then, there was the sexist and insulting suggestion that a family with an absent father, listed under examples of an “unstable family” (!), could be part of a definition of child poverty. I began to feel rather annoyed at that point. How about all those wealthy, successful single mums and widows? How about lesbian mums? It sounded like a thought regurgitated from the 1950’s. However, we kept calm and challenged all this prejudice with research evidence.

One of the few assertions in the document I agreed with, however, is that any poverty measure should be, amongst other things, “widely accepted by the public.”  The Poverty and Social Exclusion survey constructed by my research team uses what is known as a “consensual measure of poverty”. This is a two-stage method, where as a first step a random sample of UK adults are asked which items on a list they consider necessities. Necessities are belongings or activities which everyone should be able to afford and which no one should have to do without. There are long lists for adults and children. The children’s list includes items such as “fresh fruit or vegetables at least once a day” as well as activities, such as “friends round for tea or a snack once a fortnight”. On the basis of this, we create a poverty measure based not only on normal activities and items which children lack, but on items which children lack but which the majority of the British population thinks they ought to have. In other words, this definition of poverty is entirely based on what the British population thinks the minimum necessities of life are. As a second step, adults are asked about the items they, as well as their children own, and whether they lack any items because they cannot afford them. We therefore already have a poverty measure for adults and children reflects the most widely accepted definition of poverty. We will be able to look at changes over time, between parts of the UK and between different groups of people.

So… what have we found? Is poverty increasing in the UK? Are more British and Northern Irish children going without? We are currently analysing the data, and our first results will be announced on the ITV tonight programme on the 28th of March at 7.30pm.

After that, I will share our ongoing poverty research in future blog posts. If you’d like to be the first to know, click “follow this blog” on the right hand side.

You can also follow me on Twitter:

[twitter-follow screen_name='klbesemer' show_count='yes']