By Oliver Crunden
A huge divergence is emerging in how the UK public views the state of the nation, and the wider world. The lens of one group reflects a crumbling world, characterised by struggle and underpinned by malice and deep injustice. In the other is reflected an imperfect but improving world, progress pumping through the veins of history and manifesting in (their corner of) the modern world as comfort and security. The first group advocates radical overhaul as the only option, while the second requires only minor tweaks here and there to smoothen out the workings of an ultimately well-functioning machine.
Try getting both groups into a room to discuss how to solve Problem A. It’s impossible. Differences in opinion on solutions to a problem are necessary and productive. But this productive disagreement is a distant fantasy while everyone is stuck squabbling about what the problem is in the first place.
This running series will attempt to demystify our current squabbles and demonstrate that the state of the nation is not merely in the eye of the beholder. There are many ways to look at and represent the world, but there is one set of material conditions ‘out there’. In the first-of-the-series we look at poverty in the UK, and how different ways to measure the extent of it are used to further political ends and distance us from human experience.
Poverty is a concept that we all instinctively understand and have a clear picture of, yet trying to actually define what it means is a bit more difficult. The picture in my mind’s eye and the definition I think of are probably very differently to yours.
There are two main ways to think about poverty, in absolute or relative terms. Both involve thinking about a ‘poverty line’, a threshold below which people are considered to be ‘in poverty’. Relative poverty sets this line relative to others within society, so that if living standards of the middle class went up, so too would the relative poverty line. Absolute poverty fixes the line to a concept, usually fulfilling basic human needs – having enough food, water and adequate shelter – and does not consider how much others in society have.
Now, what is considered when calculating the poverty line, whether relative or absolute, varies between countries and over time. Just before the turn of the 20th century in the UK, Seebohm Rowntree sought to provide a ‘scientific’ measurement of poverty. He wanted to challenge the prevailing narrative of the day, that the poor were behaviourally defective, individually responsible for their wretched fate and therefore undeserving of help. (How times have changed). Rowntree wanted to find a level of income that someone living a completely sterile life – swearing off alcohol, tobacco or any other perceived excesses of the day – would still be unable to achieve “physical efficiency”. Not keeling over and wasting away, in today’s terminology. He worked out the price of the cheapest diet that would just about keep one foot swinging in front of the other. And while feet would move, presumably the bowels would not. Dinners of potatoes with milk, bread and cheese featured heavily throughout the week, with no ruffage in sight. The cost of this paupers not-so-feast was then taken as the (absolute) poverty line. Because of his austere approach to setting the threshold, no Government minister of the day could even attempt to claim that the poor were at fault. His work persuaded the Government to act, passing the National Insurance Act in 1911 and taking the first step towards the creation of the welfare state.
Forty-two years later in 1997, Peter Townsend proposed a radical re-definition and established what we now know as relative poverty: the inability to participate in the customs and norms afforded to the rest of society. Poverty as exclusion. This is now the essence of the working definition of poverty across the European Union – a lack of resources that deprive an individual of a minimally acceptable standard of living.
So why does any of this matter? Well, each definition of poverty is fundamentally political in nature. Our choice of measure determines what we understand about the extent of poverty and how we speak about it – we didn’t do anything to help the poor until Rowntree provided irrefutable proof that it wasn’t their fault. Nowadays politicians don’t overtly discuss who is at fault, but veil this sentiment in discussions over the technicalities of measurement.
For example, this relative/absolute distinction is often used as a riposte to any less than flattering report published on the state of the UK. Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is a particular fan of this little bit of plate-spinnery, with the latest devastating UN report on the state of the nation being the most recent target. He’s seen responding to a seemingly hard hitting question about rising poverty levels in the UK by looking down his bespectacled nose and citing in his oh so polite tone that absolute poverty has been continually falling in the UK, actually.
So which is it? Rising or falling? Interestingly, both. Absolute poverty is falling yet relative poverty is rising. And is projected to rise even further in the coming years, with large regional disparities. The proportion of children in relative poverty is projected to rise from 29.7% in 2017 to 36.6% in 2021, with rates of increase in the northern regions double those expected in the south.
To understand this apparent paradox, we need to understand how relative and absolute poverty are being measured. In the UK, the relative poverty line is 60% of the median income for that year. The median is just the middle value in a list. So if we listed all of the incomes in the UK from lowest to highest, the median is the middle value, with exactly half of the incomes listed above and half below. If we took 60% of that middle value we would arrive at the relative poverty line for that year. The UK’s absolute poverty measure does not fix the line to achieving “physical efficiency” or fulfilling basic needs, but to 60% median income in 2010/11. Whether 60% of the average Jane’s income this year is really an accurate indicator of someone’s ability to participate in society is another story. (second spoiler alert: it’s not). And why the absolute poverty line is fixed to incomes of ten years ago is anyone’s guess.
So, absolute poverty is falling because people are earning more than they did in 2010/11, and relative poverty is rising because people in the middle and top of society are increasing their earnings much faster than those at the bottom. Ok, but these measures tells us nothing about the lived experience of poverty. Numbers, percentage point changes, inflation rates, and consumer price indexes become the focal point in all of this, not the lives of the people the numbers are supposed to tell us about. We’re no closer to getting that firm grip on material reality.
There are better ways of finding a hold on reality, but we need to look beyond the airwaves and talking heads. University of Bristol have been investigating poverty since the 60’s, using what’s called a consensual approach. It’s simple, they ask people what they think the necessities of life are – being able to heat your home or invite friends round for dinner once a month – and then assess how many people are deprived of those necessities. Just as Rowntree’s approach was the first scientific way to measure absolute poverty, this is the first scientific measure of relative poverty. And it paints quite a different picture than the official figures. The latest investigation in 2012 was the largest study of poverty ever conducted in the UK. It found that nearly three in ten people in Britain were living below the minimum standard accepted by society. This proportion was double that found in 1983, and the proportion of people who couldn’t adequately heat their home in 2012 was treble that of 1983. During a time of supposedly unparalleled economic growth, the number of people who found themselves living in conditions the public deemed unacceptable doubled. If that doesn’t make you question the ‘growth paradigm’, I don’t know what will.
All of this is not to say that we should do away with the official income measure of relative poverty that we currently have. Yes it is inadequate, but it’s the measure that will show the Government’s failure to achieve the goal enshrined in the 2010 Child Poverty Act – to reduce relative child poverty below double digits by 2020. Unless Government officials have a belated Ebenezer Scrooge moment and go handing out wads of cash to poor children on New Year’s Eve, that’s not happening.
My point instead is to reaffirm that all measurement is political, and that behind seemingly objective calibrations are political calculations. The official figures make us lose sight of what’s important and weaken our much needed grip on reality. Yet the unequivocal reality is this: three in ten people are forced into a standard of living that the public deem unacceptable. Now the actually interesting questions can be raised: is that fair? Do enough of us care enough to do anything about it? And why do those three people find themselves there?
I feel that in responding to these questions, many, including Mr. Rees-Mogg, may invoke a similar argument to those that Rowntree disproved all those years ago. That it’s the natural order, some are just better than others and rise to the top, other’s wilt and drift below. And here, thinly veiled behind a technical discussion lurks the same ugly and plainly wrong argument: relative poverty is nothing to worry about because individuals are to blame for finding themselves in it. Yet we can’t see people for what they really think when we’re stuck squabbling over what the problem is.
The bar is set low when it comes to how Government ministers engage with the reality of poverty in the UK. Yet former Secretary of State, Amber Rudd, defied all odds by successfully limboing underneath this bar in her response to the very same UN report on poverty in the UK. She disregarded the findings out of hand, claiming they were barely believable, too political, and didn’t match up to what the public and Ministers see with their eyes. So too did MP Phillip Hammond. Apparently it’s unnecessary to engage in manipulating technical jargon to befuddle the public at all anymore. Why not just say you don’t believe in it?
The mystification of measurement and our shallow media have created a bizarre situation where more information seems to provide us with less clarity. No wonder it’s so easy to leverage public support with the “we’ve had enough of the experts” schtick, as Amber Rudd and ‘leaders’ across Europe and America are doing with increasing frequency. Technical terms are so poorly explained that people like Jacob Rees-Mogg can win a discussion on the Tories record on poverty. Something has gone very wrong here. We’re seeing populism and anti-expert sentiment flourish in a time where expertise has never been more accessible. It’s terrifying to think that we might look back with nostalgia to a time when politicians exploited gaps in public knowledge with smokescreens of technical jargon.