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DWP slammed over poverty redefinition

James Watkins - Law on the Web

  1. 03 July 2015
  2. Miscellaneous
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The government has announced that methods of measuring child poverty are to be changed to focus on the “root causes” of poverty.

Under the current definition, which was introduced in 2010, a child is considered to live in poverty if they live in a household with less than 60% of the median national income.

However, this definition, introduced by Gordon Brown’s Labour government, is believed to be inadequate by the current government, as fluctuations in the median income can affect whether or not a child is considered to be poverty-stricken, even if their own circumstances do not change.

Iain Duncan Smith, secretary for the Department for Work and Pensions, has described it as “deeply flawed and a poor test of whether children’s lives are genuinely improving”, while David Cameron dubbed it “absurd”.

Social mobility

The new definition will focus more on social mobility, taking into account a number of factors besides income, such as whether or not their parents are in work and how well they are doing in school.

Iain Duncan Smith said: “Governments will no longer just focus on moving families above a poverty line, instead we want to focus on making a meaningful change to children’s lives by extending opportunity for all, so both they and their children can escape from the cycle of poverty and improve their life chances.

“We know in households with unstable relationships, where debt and addiction destabilise families, where parents lack employment skills, where children just aren’t ready to start school, these children don’t have the same chances in life as others. It is self-evident.

“They cannot break out of that cycle of disadvantage. We are currently developing these measures right now – family breakdown, problem debt and drug and alcohol dependency – and we will report each year on these life chances as well.”

He also announced that the longstanding target to eliminate child poverty by 2020 had been scrapped.

Responses to the changes

Frank Field, chair of the commons work and pensions select committee and frequent critic of the government’s dealing with poverty, welcomed the change.

“We mustn't flit around with general aspirations about educational attainment when we know life chances are determined before children enter school,” he said. “So the measure therefore must look at whether we are equalising life opportunities for the poorest children before they reach school, and that definition will then drive policy to achieve those objectives.”

However, critics have accused the government of trying to redefine poverty in order to disguise lack of progress in reducing child poverty, particularly as a plan to slash another £12bn from the welfare budget is expected to be announced next week.

Others have accused the government of trying to further stigmatise the poor by establishing family breakdown and drug dependency as factors in poverty and shifting focus away from families that simply don’t have enough money.

“Family breakdown doesn’t cause child poverty,” said Fiona Weir, from the charity Gingerbread. “It is unaffordable childcare, low levels of maternal employment and poor wages that push families below the poverty line.”

These sentiments were echoed by Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, who said before the announcement that redefining poverty alone would do little to help.

“There is an urgent need for a proper plan that tackles its root causes, including low pay, low educational attainment and low levels of employment in some communities,” he said.

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