A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Poverty stats

The poverty stats issued yesterday are obviously not good news but need to be taken with a pinch of salt because what they are actually an indicator of is whether the incomes of the poorest are keeping pace with rapid increases in median income. Obviously its a bad thing if they are not because it creates a more divided society, but what the numbers don't mean is that the poor are getting poorer and actually have less cash than they did the year before - in fact the poor are getting richer, just not as fast as those on average incomes.

I would be more interested to know the stats based on a definition of poverty as being unable to afford a defined basic standard of living - does anyone know if and where these are published? - which seems a more meaningful indicator than the constantly shifting goalpost of a % of national median income. I would have thought it would be relatively easy to define what as a society we think every person should be able to afford - in fact a debate on this would help a lot of better off people get their heads round the impact poverty actually has - and then agree how to guarantee everyone gets that level of income.

However, I disagreed with DWP Minister Jim Murphy (I think this is the first time I've disagreed with Jim Murphy since NOLS Conference 1992) when he said (as reported by
Dave Osler) that benefits (as opposed to work) could never lift everyone out of poverty. I thought the idea was that as democratic socialists we wanted to abolish poverty. Why don't we just define a minimum income that's set above the poverty level - defined in absolute not relative terms - and then set the minimum income provided by benefits at that level, and the minimum wage for working people sufficiently above that to be an incentive to work? Is there a reason not to do this (or at least start getting there in stages)?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Channel 4 had stats on absolute poverty as well as relative poverty. I can't find them on the web at the moment but they didn't flatter the government.

10:09 am, March 28, 2007

Blogger Chris Paul said...

Not Jon Snow is right. Absolute poverty figures are improving but not entirely rosy. Relative ones are horrendous and getting worse by the day.

Equality has been replaced by Solidarity and [trot]Mediation-of-Capitalist-Class-Violence[/trot] (!!!!) in the Labour Lexicon of Love.

Meanwhile Luke you and your readers may be interested in THIS on Peter Hain's Hypocrisy, and THIS exclusive spot of Ken Clarke's political craftmanship. I think I've caught him advance plagiarising which is an excellent trick if my speculation is proved correct.

10:19 am, March 28, 2007

Blogger Tom Freeman said...

There are figures on childhood material deprivation in tables 4.7 and 4.8 of this PDF - things like the affordability of a week's holiday a year, having the kids' friends round for a snack once a fortnight, going on school trips once a term, celebrations on special occasions, home contents insurance, replacing broken electrical goods, keeping the house warm...

I can't find equivalent figures for previous years, I'm afraid.

10:45 am, March 28, 2007

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

Glad to see you agree with me on this one.

11:08 am, March 28, 2007

Blogger donpaskini said...

Deciding on a defined basic standard of living is actually pretty tricky, or, at least, is the subject of considerable debate. Trying to put numbers on the DWP's material deprivation questions, for example, how much it costs to make sure children over the age of ten have separate bedrooms in, say, London and Liverpool are very different.

Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network have an excellent online Poverty Awareness Tour, worth a look - http://www.niapn.org/tour_sound.html which shows how a family earning just enough to stay out of poverty would end up £2,000 in debt each year if they spent the same as the average family on housing, transport, food, clothes and utilities.

One possible measure is that if benefit levels had risen in line with earnings (the Tories broke the link as they did with pensions), JSA would now be about £30/week higher than it currently is.

On minimum income, I agree with you absolutely. You would need much higher wages for low earners(or ways of subsidising people in work if wages don't rise a lot), and a big increase in levels of benefit, so you would probably end up taxing people on middle incomes more (or cutting spending on things that they like) to pay higher benefits for people who are living in poverty, so there is a political challenge.

But the current plan of giving private companies contracts to get people off benefit and into work isn't going to reduce poverty - it is one of the more stupid aspects of the choice agenda.

Personally, I would vote for, and indeed actively travel to help, any candidate in a Labour Party selection who said that if they became an MP, they would work towards ensuring that everyone receives a minimum income which takes them out of poverty. I suspect, though, that sadly this makes me unrepresentative of Labour Party members.

11:10 am, March 28, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A critical thing to not lose sight of in the admittedly disappionting stats is that child poverty and poverty in general (absolute and relative) are in the news because the Labour Government commendably made them part of their central ambitions - explicity so in the case of child poverty.

The idea of Tories coming on in the media to attack the Government on this front would be laughable if it were not so nauseous given what they did in the 90s.

In our disappiontment we need to take the stance of 'how can we do better' rather than 'who to blame or who can we get at with these stats?'

11:19 am, March 28, 2007

Blogger donpaskini said...

It's also worth mentioning that these rises bring to an end the longest period of poverty falling since 1961 (when records began). On this measure of reducing poverty, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have had a better record than Harold Wilson or Jim Callaghan.

12:20 pm, March 28, 2007

Blogger Chris Paul said...

Have maintained your link Luke - both Lukes actually - and also done a tasteful round up of others (many of whom have reciprocated, hint) Hatches, Matches and Dispatches.

1:32 pm, March 28, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It's also worth mentioning that these rises bring to an end the longest period of poverty falling since 1961 (when records began). On this measure of reducing poverty, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have had a better record than Harold Wilson or Jim Callaghan."

Yeah, but that's because this government has lasted longer than Wilson's of 1964-70 and 1974-6 (of course some people may choose to credit Blair with not losing power but rather simplistic e.g. the economic situation he has faced has been much more favourable). When Wilson resigned in 1976, poverty and inequality were at their lowest levels the country has seen before or since.

Luke's idea of an absolute measure of what society thinks people should be able to afford is bizarre for someone on the left of the national political spectrum. What constitutes what is regarded as a decent standard of living changes as average living standards rise. That is the whole point of defining poverty in relative terms. 60 % of average income is simply what social research (Townsend etc.) has calculated as being roughly what such a relative poverty line is in modern societies.

2:15 pm, March 28, 2007

Blogger Tom said...

Great idea. Well worth pushing.

I am more concerned than something else you said. There was a disagreement?? in NOLS??

Only joking, we have them all the time (in a comradely sense, of course). I didn't imagine them taking place back then though...

3:15 pm, March 28, 2007

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

There was indeed a disagreement in NOLS in 1992 - it was at the "New Directions" caucus at NOLS Conference not Council. I was the anti-NOLS Office rebel candidate for National Committee - I was beaten by Tom Watson largely because Jim mobilised lots of Strathclyde Uni students to attend the caucus (caucuses were open to all non-Trot members not just delegates). If my memory is correct I was nominated by Stephen Twigg.

3:35 pm, March 28, 2007

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...


you could change the absolute measure over time - but why not have one?

At the moment, if there was a recession and overall median incomes fell, the definition of poverty would become tighter and therefore the numbers in poverty might not rise, which is absurd!

Surely any society ought to have a legal definition of an absolute minimum standard of living that it won't let citizens fall below?

3:42 pm, March 28, 2007

Blogger Owen said...

While we're on the subject of tackling inequality, John McDonnell has just blogged about his proposals for a Land Value Tax if elected Labour leader - it's worth a shufty:


4:02 pm, March 28, 2007

Blogger Chris Paul said...

Please go and take MY poll about Guido and do rush down to the bookies and try and get £1000 on Paxo to tell Guido again tonight that he's talking bollocks.

Presumably they HAVE recorded the interview already? Waiting until 11pm would be a huge risk to take.

5:02 pm, March 28, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"you could change the absolute measure over time - but why not have one?"

Luke, I suppose what I am saying is that the level of income equivalent to your 'decent standard of living' would in advanced industrial countries always tend to be about 60% of median income. The 60% figure is not arbitrary, but has arisen as a result of research on poverty. There are countries in which few people receive less than 60% of median income so it isn't an impossible target.

I don't object to your idea of defining the poverty line in terms of goods rather than income-as long as you do alter it as average living standards change. But I took your earlier complaint about a 'moving target' as meaning you wanted to keep it constant.

"Surely any society ought to have a legal definition of an absolute minimum standard of living that it won't let citizens fall below?"

But if a society had a really big fall in GDP it wouldn't be able to afford to e.g. if the 'absolute minimum' was equivalent to 60% of the average and average income fell by 40% (as happened in the recession in Russia following the end of the USSR).

7:10 pm, March 28, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was at the conference in question, Luke. 300 delegates - 1/3 bemused international visitors; 1/3 private secotr potential contractors and employers; 1/3 NGOs and academics. I was sitting with Kate Green and Ruth Lister when he said it, and all of our heads hit the table in disbelief. He did try and row back on it in a later session. The idea that an administration which is preparing to require lone parents to undertake work-focussed activity when their youngest child is 12 (a proposal of the Freud review) accepts that that family will be living below the poverty line for the preceding 12 years is monstrous.

9:10 pm, March 28, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Luke was a rare old rebel! Didn't you stand on a rebel slate for Standing Orders Committee the following year? (Or have my recollections failed me?) I have some memory of a smoky caucus...

10:19 pm, March 28, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

How's about the fact that I can't afford to eat AND heat my flat AND pay council tax? I used to be able to do all these things AND go for a steam bath once a week (until Hackney Council ballsed that up too) when on benefit - before Bliar got in - now I can't.

And yet, ironically, with a recent increase in income tax for those below 17K, I am - like other people on benefit - far LESS likely to be better off working in a low wage job.

In other words, poorer and less likely to work. Thanks for nothing, Gordon Brown!

12:50 am, March 29, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...


is alright, if you sort of click around.

1:32 pm, March 30, 2007


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