Yes, child poverty is bad; but no, Iain Duncan Smith does not know best

by Joseph Markus

Last week, in a momentous shift of emphasis, this blog hosted its first contribution from the centre-right of the political spectrum, as commonly conceived.

This piece, by Jo Colman, suggested that people of all political colours rise above petty and party-political divides to embrace a single and unifying truth (and, for him, just one example of where ‘politics’ should be ‘set aside’), that child poverty is bad.

I’m with him that far, at least. But the problem comes when, as Sam Hawke commenting below the line observed, you try to decide what to do about it.

Poverty is a complex phenomenon. People fall into poverty (a phrase not intended to suggest that they’re always blameless) for myriad reasons. How to get them out is a similarly frustrating and, crucially, divisive issue. Sam cited Cass Sunstein and, to highlight its non-controversy, the point is made by a number of other academic philosophers including, from a different political position, Michael Walzer. His concepts of ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ morality express the same conclusion: we can agree in broad terms, but disagree on the detail.

It is a common tactic in partisan debate to decry the other side’s approach as ‘plainly political’ while suggesting that your side stands for the ‘real issue’, the ‘big picture’ or—as David Cameron put it upon hitching himself to Nick Clegg and launching his vast state-shrinking programme—of the ‘national interest’. You take control of that language and the battle is halfway won. In fact it’s instructive that, in connection with this Government’s economic policy, the Tories have largely set the terms of the economic debate through tactics that utilised next to no sound economic reasoning.

Jo is right when he suggests that, at times and in certain circumstances, playing politics with people is distinctly unhelpful. But that, by itself, in no sense justifies the conclusion that we are somehow now entering a post-ideological hinterland.

Expanding this into the real world: Iain Duncan Smith, and the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) in a recent Report, is correct to say that child poverty is an (objective) evil. But by no stretch of the imagination is he right (in my left-tinted view) about the causes or the cure.

The Report in question (a slim, 15-page pamphlet), published in May by the centre-of-right think-tank, puts forward, in part, a remarkably insightful case. For one thing, it is right to identify the complexity of the concept of poverty as well as the fact that it cannot simply and only be defined as an income below a certain point (though, of course, income inequality, especially in Western market economies, is a significant indicator). The Report even draws on a separate report, produced by Frank Field MP (Labour), to add a bi-partisan gloss to the finished product. In principle, it sounds great.

But then you read it. And you see that the Report is littered with non-sequiturs and examples of (apparently) intentionally misleading misunderstandings.

The Report starts and finishes with the strong belief that “any strategy to tackle poverty should focus on the root causes of deprivation and the social breakdown which fuels it, not the symptoms”. There is a curious doublethink here. The CSJ recognise that the causes (and symptoms) of poverty are exceedingly complex but fail to point out that, in a situation where poverty is inter-generational, causes and symptoms overlap. They advocate a simple solution to what they know is a complex problem. (In fact, the better description of the position is more that the causes for poverty that the CSJ identify are actually symptoms of a deeper malaise.)

Straw men and cloaked ideology are rolled out to justify the huge pullbacks on welfare that we have seen under the Coalition. Perhaps the weakest of these is the argument that income redistribution has failed because income poverty decreased only 6% during Labour’s 13 years in office, and this was in relation to a spend of £150 billion on Tax Credits. But this argument proves too little and, potentially, proves nothing at all.

First, and obviously, what the CSJ authors have done is take a crude correlation between two possibly related factors and leap immediately to a causal connection. The argument could work had it taken into account all of the other factors in play—at least the hard core of New Labour policies—but it doesn’t, and so can’t.

In any case, there is a further unstated assumption that comes clear in the later sections. It’s recorded, through an IFS estimate, that reducing child poverty rates to 10% by 2020 through the tax and benefit system would cost £19 billion. There follows the un-footnoted and unsupported proposition that “[t]his is not a sustainable option given the current economic climate”. That is the real argument: that we (we’re told) can’t afford to spend money on poverty reduction (whatever form that takes. And remember that the CSJ has not told us how it believes that poverty could be reduced at the same time as slashing costs; it just articulates a list of indicators so that we can measure the decline as things get worse. One must assume that any form of poverty reduction would involve some expense because it almost certainly will not be a ‘positive-sum game’.)

Next is a glaring example of, what must be, plain intellectual dishonesty. An old debate within development studies raises the question of ‘relative’ or ‘absolute’ poverty reduction. What is striking—rather than the merits of this debate—is the brazen untruth of the point made. It’s worth setting out at length how the Report puts it.

The first methodological flaw of the Government’s central measure of poverty is that it is defined in relative terms. The result of this is that the poor will always exist statistically, as it is inevitable that some in society will have less than others.

This is simply false. Addressing relative poverty does not demand that everyone has the same level of income, just that the average incomes of the rich and poor grow closer together. The question is one of the margin between rich and poor, not of eradicating the idea of the relatively rich and the relatively poor altogether.

Lastly, in place of (useful) statistics derived from its 300 Alliance organisations, the CSJ seek to tug on the heartstring of legislators and the public. We’re told about a 17-year old who battles with the effects of his mother’s alcoholism. This, along with several other carefully chosen vignettes, is intended to make the case for a moralistic and basically fault-based approach towards poverty reduction. It isn’t the complex panoply of factors mentioned in the Introduction any longer: now it is the alcoholism and chronic worklessness (read laziness) of the lower socio-economic classes that is to blame.

Presenting case studies as part of an argument alleged to be constructed on the basis of wide-ranging stakeholder input is disingenuous. The effect of the case studies is quite obviously calculated to play on the popular tropes associated with the non-working poor under-class. The examples the CSJ have chosen are each highly morally-charged. In fact, it’s extremely unlikely that less moralistic (perhaps more commonplace) stories would have been chosen (or, maybe, even collected in the first place): it just wouldn’t have made for interesting reading.

And, of course, the primary criticism is that selective case studies are necessarily unrepresentative and unhelpfully distorting. Let me be clear, the problem doesn’t stop with the CSJ; it is in reality a function of the absence of peer review and external validation in connection with the ostensibly scientific research produced by some of the less scrupulous think-tanks (think Heartland Institute).

To some extent, then, there is a valid point that politicking can muddy the path towards beneficial social change, but it can only go so far. In any case, it is no reason to drop the usual critical candour of the ‘Progressive Left’.

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4 comments
  1. I think it’s been said before by people better informed than myself. But, is the focus on Child Poverty itself not a bit of a distraction tactic? It’s an easy way for people to avoid talking about the real issue – namely, the poverty of their parents/families. Everyone will agree child poverty should be reduced, you’d have to be some kind of heartless bastard to disagree! But, by focussing on that aspect of the issue the debate moves away from more fundamental issues of income inequality and the lack of ‘social mobility’ (though that again might be something of a distraction).

    Right and left will agree that fewer children should live in poverty. But since at the end of the day, children are shaped by the experiences granted them by their parents, combined with the ‘in loco parentis’ resources provided by the state, the real question must be on how we improve the educational and social-economic standing of their parents, and how we ensure we use state resources efficiently and effectively to improve upon the child’s starting point, as indicated by their parents’ situation.

    • josephmarkus said:

      Sam, apologies for not replying sooner.

      You’re likely to be right about that. Compartmentalising what is an incredibly complicated and, critically, far-reaching concept cannot be helpful. And, yes, separating child poverty may well work as a ‘distraction tactic’, as you put it. An effective response to the phenomenon would also have to respond to poverty in general and, like you say, unless we’re proposing to take children away from parents and put them into state-run care, you have to deal with the parents of poor children as well.

      • The flipside of that though is that using the rhetoric of child poverty is a way of gaining cross-party support for an issue that might otherwise cause divisions. If so, then it is not a distraction tactic, but a unifying tactic. Everyone agrees that child poverty is an abomination, but to eliminate it effectively, poverty has to be tackled throughout the generations.

        The difficulties arise when you get certain people from various parts of the political spectrum shunning evidence-based research and adopting ideological approaches to alleviating this problem, which often makes things worse, but also occasionally misses the target completely. In such instances, you could have the sort of approach that totally ignores parents, but claims to focus on children. Missing the big picture, you might say.

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