UK Politics

Poor Statistics

Ross Clark in the Times reports that the Department Work and Pensions is changing the way it defines poverty.

The old method

which declares to be poor anyone living on less than 60 per cent of median income, is absurd. It is a measure of equality, not poverty: a comfy pay rise for middle managers automatically throws people into “poverty”. On the other hand, you could have a society in which everybody was living on half a beansprout a week, but so long as everybody was equally starving, nobody would be officially poor.

The new method

is even less sensible. It revolves around “material deprivation”, as calculated from responses to a “Family Resources Survey” to be sent to selected households. Those who receive the survey will be given a list of goodies and treats and asked to tick the appropriate box: either “we have this”, “we would like to have this, but cannot afford it at the moment” or “We do not want/need this at the moment”. Among the things listed are “swimming at least once a month”, “replace any worn-out furniture”, “a hobby or leisure activity” and “a holiday away from home for one week a year, not staying with relatives”.

Clark goes on to explain that the new method, rather than being a method of calculating poverty, measures parsimony or relative spending priorities

whether you regard an item to be affordable depends on what level of quality you consider to be acceptable. I won’t replace worn-out chairs because the replacements I have in mind would cost several hundred pounds each.

Yet, thanks to my high levels of expectation, I am officially poorer than somebody who has just popped down to MFI and bought themselves a set of four self-assembly “oak-style” chairs for £99.99. I know a family who forsook a holiday last year because they complained they could not afford it; yet, when pressed, it emerged that their definition of holiday accommodation constituted nothing less than a villa in Tuscany, with pool. Because of their expensive tastes, they will end up being classified as poorer than a family who took a cheap and cheerful week in a beach hut in Mablethorpe

Attempting to assess levels of poverty and deprivation in this country is made very difficult by these sorts of definitions. What would be much more useful would be hard statistics showing average wages and salaries broken down by region and industry followed by a comprehensive breakdown of social security benefits that people are eligible to claim when not in work. That sort of thing would go out of date quite quickly but could at least act as a “snapshot”. I’m sure Gordon Brown must have this sort of information – does anyone know where I can get hold of it ?