Changing the definition of child poverty: Right move, wrong motive and mendacious cover

Much has been made of David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith’s latest proposal to alter the definition of child poverty. The current definition states a child is living in poverty if their household income is less than 60% of the median average. Gordon Brown first pledged to do away with child poverty, based on the old measure, but now David Cameron promises the same by altering the definition of the term.

First, let me say where I agree with Cameron. The current definition of child poverty is a nonsense. It is clearly true that in times of recession and depression, where median income falls, child poverty falls right along with it despite that same household having less money. Frank Field has also argued along similar lines. If the measure is simply to determine whether children are doing worse than average in any given year, then the measure does what it claims. If the idea is to determine whether children are better of in real-terms than they were before, then the measure is deeply flawed.

Nonetheless, this is where my agreement with Cameron’s plans start and end. I have no issue with a change in definition per se. I do, however, object to both the timing and motive of the move as well as the supposedly superior definition being offered.

First, the timing. It will come as no shock to anybody that statistics due out this month are likely to show a significant increase in child poverty. There can be no doubt that this move has been prompted by such unhelpful numbers for the government. The Prime Minister had just over five years to tackle this problem of definitions but has only been prompted to do so now. All but the most naive  political observers will surely conclude this is a prime example of reality not backing up government plans thus the government seek to alter the statistics.

Second, the new definition proposed by the government is hardly an improvement on the old. In fact, I would go as far as to say it is worse. Rather than focus on household income, Cameron and Duncan Smith suggest we focus on ‘life chances’. Instead of determining poverty levels on the basis of actual poverty, they will instead focus on things such as worklessness, educational attainment, drug dependency and family breakdown. Never mind the fact that, under certain circumstances, worklessness doesn’t always make one worse off than those in work (1), it is clearly possible to have low educational attainment and make quite a lot of money, drug abuse is often rife (though hidden) amongst the middle-classes and family breakdown does not necessarily imply low income. Despite the flaw in the current definition, the existing measure at least looks specifically at income levels. For what is poverty if it is not linked to the money in your pocket?

A much better (and more creative) definition of poverty is obviously in order. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation offers one such measure. Rather than base their definition on median income (which is liable to change and throws up obvious anomalies) or ‘life chances’ (which is double-speak for ignoring how much money you actually have), they use a Minimum Income Standard (MIS). This is the minimum income – set by the public, ratified by experts and updated annually – according to costed basic essentials for families with children. This provides a moving measure according to current levels of income whilst not tying the definition to median incomes that will change during times of recession.

Worse than the timing and new definition, however, is the motive behind this move. This is not simply a case of government, once again, massaging figures. Rather, this move is now intended to soften opinion for further benefit cuts to be announced next week. First in line for the chop is working tax credits, largely paid to ‘in work’ families not given enough by their companies to raise them above the current poverty measure. In one fell swoop, families will have money taken away from them, in the form of tax credits, and simultaneously told that child poverty levels have improved because the measure will take no account of their income. If it be flawed to measure child poverty according to median income because it falls during times of recession, it is down right mendacious to use that as a basis for altering the definition of poverty whilst simultaneously revoking supplementary income for those working in the lowest paid jobs.

Very few will argue that child poverty does not need addressing. However, the way to address it is not to define it away and measure it in anything other than monetary terms. Nor, as Alison Graham from the Child Poverty Action Group pointed out, can any moral mission involve “taking away tax credits for our poorest children, no serious plan for the low-paid begins with making them poorer by cutting their tax credits”. Even if we concede that ‘life chances’ are a better measure of poverty, surely we can’t ignore the glaringly obvious fact that income-levels and life chances are closely linked.

I am reminded that this is very often our approach to sin. If we simply define it away – saying what God calls sin is not actually sin – then our problem is gone forever. Yet, the solution to sin is not to so define it that we can pretend it’s not there. The solution to sin is to actually get rid of it but, like poverty, that is easier said than done and not something we can do simply by our own hard work. The means of doing that is by coming to Jesus Christ in faith and having God remove it from us (2). Whether we want to admit it or not, we cannot define our way out of our problems. Whether sin or poverty, the solution must lie in actually tackling the problem by first defining what the problem really is. It is only once we accept the issue, according to a credible definition, that we can really begin to find a solution. 

The solution to child poverty is not to pretend its not there. It’s not to measure it against things that define it away. It is to accept that no money makes for poverty. Only when we finally accept poverty is a lack of money which impedes life chances (not the other way around), can we begin to improve life chances by solving the issue of households with no money.


  1. Consider those in work on part-time and zero-hours contracts. Compare inner-London council house subsidies/private landlord subsidies and child benefits to those elsewhere in certain low-skilled jobs receiving tax credits.
  2. That is not to say we no longer sin. Rather, that our sin is no longer counted against us because it will have been punished in Christ