Poverty and Exclusion

The best way to eradicate child poverty is to measure it justly


Back in 2007, David Cameron had a laudable but quite unattainable vision to ‘make British poverty history’. He failed, of course, just as Gordon Brown failed before him, because the way poverty is measured (a calculation created by Gordon Brown) ensures the literal and perpetual fulfilment of Jesus’ words that the poor will always be with us (Mt 26:11; Mk 14:7; Jn 12:8). A child is deemed to be in a state of poverty if he or she lives in a household with an income below 60 per cent of the national median income (£25,636 as at April 2015). So, if your household income is below £295.80 a week, your children are officially poor.

This is plain daft. As long as government continues to measure child poverty in relative terms, Oliver Twist will always be with us. A ‘low-income’ household is actually quite well off on £2136.33 a month. Of course it doesn’t go quite as far in London as it might in, say, Hull, but you can comfortably feed and clothe a family (and pay the heating bill) on £2k a month. You might even have some left over for a packet of fags.

It is statistically impossible to lift households out of poverty without changing the way it is measured. In any normal distribution, the bell-curve will have a ‘poor’ tail, however much the median household income rises. Indeed, during times of economic growth, more will be condemned to live beneath 60% of the median than do so during times of recession. When the median household income reaches £35,000, there will still be children being brought up in households where the income is a meagre £21,000, and this, for the Guardian and teacher unions will be deemed to constitute ‘Dickensian levels’ of poverty.

The proportion of UK households defined as living in poverty has been stuck at around 20% through many decades of both Conservative and Labour administrations. David Cameron is right seek a change in the way ‘poverty’ is defined, not least because it would be more just to those who genuinely cannot afford to eat.

No party has a monopoly on the teachings of Jesus, but when examining what He said about the poor, it is worth considering some nuances of Greek vocabulary. The peasants (eg Lk 6:20) who possessed little material wealth were not called ‘poor’ (πτωχός – ‘ptochos’) if they possessed what was sufficient (ie subsistence) – they were termed ‘penes’ (πένης). Jesus was concerned with the literal, physical needs of men (ie not just the spiritual [cf Acts 10:38]). When Luke was addressing the ‘poor’, he meant those who had no money – the oppressed, miserable, dependent, humiliated – and this is translated by ‘ptochos’, indicating ‘poverty-stricken…to cower down or hide oneself for fear’ – the need to beg. The ‘penes’ has to work, but the ‘ptochos’ has to beg. Those addressed by Jesus are the destitute beggars; not ‘penes’ or the general peasant audience of few possessions. This is (or ought to be) an important distinction for politicians and for the modern audience in a society where the threshold of poverty is defined by the non-possession of a television, a DVD player, and Nike trainers.

Child poverty will only be eradicated when the Conservative Party eradicates the rigged definition of the term, which, it appears, is what David Cameron intends to do. It is the fulfilment of his Manifesto pledge “to eliminate child poverty and introduce better measures to drive real change in children’s lives, by recognising the root causes of poverty: entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency”.

And before Guardian readers (and teacher unions) screech about the evil Tories of perpetual austerity and injustice, it is worth considering why Labour MP Frank Field believes that the current measure of child poverty is not only ‘dodgy’, but ‘perverse’.