Thursday, December 20, 2007

Poverty and simplicity

Don Paskini takes issue with Tory MPs Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt for misrepresenting Labour’s approach to poverty in a pamphlet of theirs.

In the same vein, I don’t accept their claim that “the Conservative Party is developing a deeper understanding of the subject than New Labour has ever manifested”. They argue that “Government policy revolves around a simplistically defined poverty line”, but “measures of relative income are… not sufficient” because there are “other important indicators of deprivation” that the Government ignores.

Phooey.

The Department for Work and Pensions publishes an annual report called ‘Opportunity for All’. In this years’s edition, as in every year’s, it discusses 59 different measures of deprivation.

I think you can guess what I’m going to do now. There are four categories of indicator, and progress under Labour on each is given in brackets. As you’d expect, it’s a mixed bag, but the mix is mostly positive.

Children and young people
  • Children in workless households (insufficient data)
  • Relative low income (better)
  • Absolute low income (better)
  • Persistent low income (better)
  • Teenage conceptions (better)
  • Teenage parents in education, employment or training (better)
  • Proportion of children in disadvantaged areas with ‘good’ level of development (insufficient data)
  • Key Stage 2 (11-year-olds) attainment (better)
  • 16-year-olds’ achievement (better)
  • Schools below floor target (better)
  • 19-year-olds with at least a Level 2 qualification (insufficient data)
  • School attendance (no change)
  • Looked after children: education gap (worse)
  • Looked after children not in education, employment or training (insufficient data)
  • Stability in the lives of looked after children (better)
  • 16–18-year-olds in learning (no change)
  • Infant mortality (worse)
  • Serious unintentional injury (better)
  • Smoking prevalence for pregnant women (better)
  • Smoking prevalence for children aged 11-15 (better)
  • Obesity for children aged 2-10 (worse)
  • Re-registrations on Child Protection Register (better)
  • Housing that falls below the set standard of decency (better)
  • Families in temporary accommodation (worse)

People of working age
  • Employment rate (better)
  • Disabled people employment rate (insufficient data)
  • Lone parents employment rate (insufficient data)
  • Ethnic minority people employment rate (insufficient data)
  • People aged 50 and over employment rate (insufficient data)
  • Lowest qualified people employment rate (insufficient data)
  • Working-age people in workless households (better)
  • Working-age people without a Level 2 NVQ qualification or higher (insufficient data)
  • Long periods on income-related benefits (better)
  • Relative low income (no change)
  • Absolute low income (better)
  • Persistent low income (no change)
  • All adults smoking rate (better)
  • Manual socio-economic groups adult smoking rates (better)
  • Death rates from suicide and undetermined injury (better)
  • Rough sleepers (better)
  • Use of Class A drugs by 16–24-year-olds (no change)
  • Frequent use of any illicit drug by 16–24-year-olds (better)

People in later life
  • Relative low income (better)
  • Absolute low income (better)
  • Persistent low income (better)
  • People contributing to a non-state pension (worse)
  • People making continuous contributions to a non-state pension (no change)
  • Healthy life expectancy at age 65 (insufficient data)
  • Receiving intensive home care (better)
  • Receiving any community-based service (insufficient data)
  • Housing that falls below the set standard of decency (better)
  • Fear of crime (better)

Communities
  • Employment rates in deprived areas (insufficient data)
  • Crime rates in high-crime areas (better)
  • Housing that falls below the set standard of decency (better)
  • Households in fuel poverty (better)
  • Life expectancy at birth (worse)
  • Attainment gap at Key Stage 2 (11-year-olds) (better)
  • Road accident casualties in deprived areas (better)

Simplistic my arse.

9 comments:

Tom said...

Shockingly, though, there's no room in the 59 measures of deprivation for Bible poverty.

Tom Freeman said...

That's an appalling oversight. It'd be a tough target, though: as the good book itself says, the poor will always be with us.

Cassilis said...

You're being disingenuous here Tom.

Let's take the whole version of your first quote rather than the selectively edited version:

"In particular, Conservatives realise that when Government policy revolves around a
simplistically defined poverty line
, resources tend to be targeted at households just
below the threshold in order to push them just above it"

The bold bit you extracted implies the Tories are suggesting policy 'only' revolves round that simplistic measure - the full sentence makes clear it's a specific critcism ('particular', 'when') relating to when policy is so driven. Your selective quotation almost inverts the whole meaning of the sentence.

The next 'quote' you use is selectively edited again - here's the full thing:

"Conservatives also understand that while measures of relative income are important,they are not sufficient – and that, in fact, income levels are not well correlated with other
important indicators of deprivation
such as asset ownership, life expectancy, quality of living environment and access to public services"

You extract the bit in bold and again misrepresent the sentence by suggesting the authors allege the government 'ignores' these measures. That's not what they're saying - their pointing out that the correlation between the poverty line and these indicators isn't always straightforward and policy needs to address that.

Finally the reference to a 'simplistically defined poverty line' is actually just factual anyway - the 3 measures used throughout the report and indeed most of the western world relate to 50/60/70% of median earnings. Granted it's 3 rather than 1 measure but it is simply defined. What you then quote to 'counter' this aren't 59 different measures (the implication from your sign-off line) but indicators - not the same thing as the poverty measure at all.

Tom Freeman said...

Liam, let me be diplomatic and say that your construal here is ‘interesting’. The entire point of Clark and Hunt’s pamphlet is that Labour is in fact failing on issues, including poverty reduction, that are thought of as progressive.

So in saying “when Government policy revolves around a simplistically defined poverty line, resources tend to be targeted…” they are not making a general, hypothetical point. They are charging that this is exactly what Labour is doing.

That “In particular” that you quote immediately follows “the Conservative Party is developing a deeper understanding of the subject than New Labour has ever manifested.” How are we to take the remark about a simplistic definition other than as a critique of Labour? If you’re still in doubt, try this:

“the preferred definition of poverty appears to have been chosen to maximise the government’s ability to meet it. The 60% of median income cut-off line falls at the highest point of the income distribution curve. Thus by targeting those whose incomes fall just below the poverty threshold, an apparently dramatic reduction in the numbers of people in poverty can be achieved – with minimal difference being made to the actual income they enjoy.”

As well as checking annual progress on the 59 indicators (which you’ll note contain some bad news), the government’s official child poverty target is actually more complex than the headline threshold figures. It’s a combination of three elements (one of which is itself a composite), and not just the 50/60/70% of median that you suggest:

(1) the number of children in absolute low-income households [a particular threshold adjusted for inflation]…
(2) the number of children in relative low income households [60% of contemporary median equivalised household income]…
(3) the number of children in relative low-income households [70% median] and in material deprivation... Poverty is not just about income; and reducing child poverty means improving the standard of living for children.


‘Material deprivation’ consists of 21 measures. I’m not going to whack you with another list, but details are here.

The government’s approach to poverty certainly has its flaws, but excessive simplicity isn’t one of them.

Cassilis said...

Where in the report is the charge of 'excessive simplicity' levelled? It was the basis of your original post as well as your rebuttal here but it doesn't actually appear anywhere in the pamphlet. What's more you've undermined the point in your opening sentence:

"The entire point of Clark and Hunt’s pamphlet is that Labour is in fact failing on issues, including poverty reduction, that are thought of as progressive."

Precisely - the thrust is that government policy is 'failing' not necessarily that it's simplistic in approach. You're trying to trip the authors up on their grammar or semantics rather than addressing the central charge. That might make for the odd cheeky Tory-bashing blog post but it doesn't advance the debate much.

As for the simplicity issue anyway the other quote you used actually illustrates that point quite well:

"“the preferred definition of poverty appears to have been chosen to maximise the government’s ability to meet it. The 60% of median income cut-off line falls at the highest point of the income distribution curve. Thus by targeting those whose incomes fall just below the poverty threshold, an apparently dramatic reduction in the numbers of people in poverty can be achieved – with minimal difference being made to the actual income they enjoy.”

You seem to think that the existence of 59 indicators demonstrates complexity here but a year 1 stats student wouldn't make that mistake. The central thrust of the report is that government efforts to improve these 59 indicators are aimed at a tiny proportion of people who sit just inside the poverty definition - consequently success with that group is very visible even if the real impact on people's lives is marginal. This is a charge that Polly Toynbee and various left-wing pressure groups have been levelling for years - elevating statistical success above real material impacts on peoples lives.

If that doesn't speak to a desertion of the progressive cause I don't know what does...



What's more they are 'deprivation indicators' not 'poverty' indicators - the difference is key

Tom Freeman said...

Where in the report is the charge of 'excessive simplicity' levelled?

Well, I didn’t suggest that was their phrase. Nonetheless I fail to see how what I’ve said above leaves it unclear that they do believe “a
simplistically defined poverty line” is exactly what the government is guilty of focusing on. I’m sure I have a tendency to see Tory statements in a poor light, but I think on this one you’re giving them too much latitude.

the thrust is that government policy is 'failing' not necessarily that it's simplistic in approach.

I agree with the “not necessarily” across the pamphlet but on this particular charge of failure, a simplistic approach is clearly a key part of their diagnosis.

You're trying to trip the authors up on their grammar or semantics

I don’t think I am. I think they’ve expressed themselves reasonably and I disagree with what they’re saying.

the odd cheeky Tory-bashing blog post

Actually, I thought I was Labour-defending. If I were in cheeky Tory-bashing mode, you know full well I could dig out a Cameron quote from somewhere that contradicted something in this pamphlet. I could have torn into their narrative about Conservatives being the true ‘progressives’ and operated at the level of rhetoric without the need to do any fact-hunting. It would have made a few Labourite readers feel good but generated no light at all.

As it is, I've put up a post noting that infant mortality has got worse under my party. How many people know that? I'll defend them because I think on the whole they've done well, but I'm not uncritically partisan.

As for the suggestion that government policies have focused on those just below the poverty line, “elevating statistical success above real material impacts on peoples lives”, I don’t accept that.

From the IFS (table 6), in 2005/06, 17.6% of the total population were below the 60% median. Now if we look at figure 5, we see that real income growth under this government has been highest in the bottom two quintiles – hardly “a tiny proportion of people who sit just inside the poverty definition” – and an impressive contrast to the 1979-97 record in the diagram below it.

You know I have a penchant for semi-jokey cheap shots here and there; but I’m also an anorak in one or two areas. I do mean what I’ve been saying here.

Cassilis said...

I'm not doubting your sincerity Tom - I just think your reading of the figures and your dismissal of the Tory case here is partisan.

Even the new figures you cite don't actually contradict what the Tories are saying (and if anything lend weight to it) when you actually look in detail. You refute the charge of 'tiny proportion' by referencing the 17.6% defined as poor last year. But that figure was 19.4% when Labour took office. An absolute difference of roughly 400,000 people, less than 2% change. 'Tiny proportion' seems to stand up against those figures.

I can accept that income growth has dramatically improved for the bottom quartiles and as a moderate Tory I welcome that - I loathed Thatcher too and her record here is shameful. But this is still taking a relatively small number of people (400k) from one side of a line, pushing them beyond it (largely using the benefit system) and then claiming some great progressive leap.

As I mentioned before Tom I can understand why you might dismiss my criticisms here but I'm not alone - this is the same refrain you get almost monthly from Toynbee, Compass et al. I don't expect those people (or you) would ever expect Cameron to be the answer but it doesn't mean Labour isn't getting things wrong.

Regardless, I expect we've explored our differences to the limit so thanks for the discussion and a happy Christmans and prosperous (i.e. this side of the median) new year to you!

Liam

Tom Freeman said...

You refute the charge of 'tiny proportion' by referencing the 17.6% defined as poor last year. But that figure was 19.4% when Labour took office. An absolute difference of roughly 400,000 people, less than 2% change. 'Tiny proportion' seems to stand up against those figures.

The whole point of me citing those figures was to illustrate that 'the bottom two quintiles' covers many many more people than those that have moved across the 60% line.

Ah well. As you say, we should probably call this one a day. Hope you have a good Christmas, both relatively and absolutely!

Tom

GradeAinHigherMathsActually said...

It's not a 2% change nitwit.

The numbers in poverty were more than 10% higher when the Tories were in power.