DWP adds to confusion over consultation on child poverty

by Nick Bailey and Mike Tomlinson

The Department of Work and Pensions has just published the results of an online poll as part of its contribution to its own consultation on measuring child poverty. But, like the consultation itself, it is deeply flawed.

The PSE team has already published its (highly critical) submission (PSE policy response working paper No. 8) to the government consultation which closes on 15 February.

The central question for the consultation is whether the current child poverty measure is adequate or whether it needs to be broadened so that it reflects factors which cause poverty or which capture aspects of the experience of poverty. (The current target includes both income measures and deprivation measures but, for some reason, the latter get ignored in the consultation paper.)

As our response makes clear, there is great value in conducting research into the causes and the consequences of poverty, both to understand the problem and to guide policy making. In this respect, we agree with the Minister, Iain Duncan Smith, when, as quoted in the Daily Mail, he says that: “... simply calculating whether people sit above or below the relative income line does not do enough to reflect the reality of their lives.” There is a wealth of academic research which can help here.

Confusing causes and levels

However we argue that the consultation paper makes a basic error when it confuses measures of the causes of child poverty with measures of the level of poverty. These are not the same kind of thing. If you want to know whether the Government is making progress in reducing child poverty, you have to measure the levels. Monitoring trends in causes can provide useful additional information but it is no substitute for the first.

The DWP’s new contribution to the debate, Public Views on Child Poverty: Results from the first polling undertaken as part of the Measuring Child Poverty consultation, adds to this confusion. At five pages long (including the cover), it presents the results from asking a single question of a cross-section of the public.  As this is described as an ‘initial survey’ and the ‘first round of polling’, there is more to come.

The question itself is highly ambiguous. Respondents are asked to rate a list of items in terms of how important they think each is “when deciding whether someone is growing up in poverty”. The question could be read literally as being about definitions or categories (“How important is X in deciding whether someone should be considered to be growing up in poverty?”). Equally it could be interpreted by respondents as asking about causality (“How important is X in determining the chances that someone will grow up in poverty?”). The items themselves encourage this confusion because they combine things which are about living standards (living in a damp or cold home, or not having enough income) with others which may be contributory factors to a greater or lesser extent (parents addicted to drugs or alcohol, experiencing family breakdown).

The method behind the DWP poll is defended by saying “the results are consistent with the 2009 British Social Attitudes Survey which included a similar question asking the respondents to consider the reasons for child poverty”. But the BSAS and DWP polls asked very different questions. First, where the DWP question confuses levels and causes, the BSAS question is clearly about causes. It presented people with a list of fifteen possible “reasons why children live in poverty in Britain”, including that “Their parents suffer from alcohol, drug abuse or other addiction”. On average people chose six reasons and 75 per cent gave alcohol/drug abuse as one reason. When asked for the main reason, however, just 19 per cent gave the alcohol/drug abuse answer.

Second, the BSAS question asks about the reasons for child poverty in general while the DWP question asks about the circumstances of an individual child. It may be quite likely that an individual child with parents addicted to drugs or alcohol will grow up in poverty. But this does not mean that drug or alcohol addiction is a cause of child poverty in the majority of cases. In fact, the evidence from research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (Poverty: the role of institutions, behaviours and culture) is that over one in five of the population is affected by poverty whereas less than one in twenty are ‘problematic drug users’ or dependent on alcohol.

Confusing values and facts

Why did the DWP commission this poll when it is in the middle of a formal consultation? The reason stated in the report is that “a key criteria for a new child poverty measure is that it should be widely accepted by the public as being a fair representation of those children growing up in poverty”.

Here the DWP’s confusion becomes most obvious. There is a fundamental difference between drawing on public opinion in questions of values and drawing on those opinions in questions of fact.

The PSE project does the first. In our definition of poverty, we use public opinion to say what items should define the minimum acceptable standard of living in modern Britain. This is a value judgement. Using public opinion to decide this gives our measure a clear democratic legitimacy: only the public can know what the public thinks the minimum acceptable standard is.

By contrast, the DWP wants to use public opinion to answer questions of fact – to say what factors cause poverty. The Minister is already using the research in this way. Speaking on 31 January, Mr Duncan Smith said: “how we measure child poverty must do more to expose the real challenge we face, drawing on how it is experienced by children themselves, and how poverty is perceived by the wider public. A recent poll conducted as part of the consultation process shows that whilst not having enough income is thought to be one important factor [in child poverty], other criteria are considered equally or even more crucial. Interestingly, having a parent addicted to drugs or alcohol was thought to be the most important factor of all ... Three quarters of people said having an addicted parent was very important, almost 20% more than the next most significant factor ... it is striking that so many people pick out as central to a child’s experience of poverty, a factor that so rarely features in the poverty debate. It seems obvious that having a parent with addiction problems will have a huge negative impact on a child’s life and prospects but the debate has pushed us away from the kind of direct thinking that is intuitive for most people.”

It may be true that people surveyed by the DWP believed that parental addiction was hugely important for the experience of child poverty but that does not make it true in practice. To identify the most important factor for a child growing up in poverty, we need research with those children.

Note also how Mr Duncan Smith is mis-using the evidence here. The poll did not say that parental addiction was the “most important” factor in child poverty; it was merely the factor which most people thought had some importance. When people are actually asked what they think the most important factor is, as in the BSAS survey, only a small minority (around 20 per cent) say it is parental addiction.

Policy by opinion poll?

It is hard to interest many people in debates over the measurement of child poverty – it can seem a dry and technical subject. But the consultation paper emphasises that the desire to change the measure stems from a desire to use this to drive a change in policy. In confusing values and facts, therefore, we would effectively be moving to ‘policy by opinion poll’.

To see the dangers of this, you only have to think what it would mean applied to other policy areas. Does anyone want the regulation of medicines determined by which ones people think are effective, or by which ones research shows are effective?

Nick Bailey is a Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow and Mike Tomlinson is Professor of Social Policy at Queen’s University, Belfast. Both are members of the PSE: UK research team.

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