It does happen here
Child poverty has hit the news agenda with the launch of Save the Children’s It Shouldn’t Happen Here campaign, the charity’s first ever UK fundraising appeal, which is calling for £500,000 to help recession-hit families pay for coats, shoes, hot meals and other necessities. The timing of the announcement and the fact of an international aid organisation campaigning in the UK has prompted accusations of political positioning, but this has clouded the real issues raised in the report.
With significant numbers of parents found to be going without food and borrowing money to provide for their children, and stark images of deprivation - around one in five parents in poverty said their children go without new shoes when they need them - arising alongside evidence of financial struggle in households well above the poverty bracket, a complex, changing landscape of poverty emerges that goes beyond stereotypes and simple solutions.
The survey questioned over 5,000 parents and 1,500 children from a variety of low- to middle-income households, exploring their experiences of poverty and financial struggle and the effects on mental wellbeing and family life. Taken together with evidence of material deprivation, the report helps build the many-sided, nuanced picture of poverty that we need - one that acknowledges the rise of in-work poverty, and the complex sets of social, material, mental and physical factors that interact to keep many different types of households poor.
The complex nature of poverty as a lived experience is what Demos’ current research on multidimensional poverty measurement aims to capture. This autumn, Demos will publish findings from the research, carried out in conjunction with NatCen, which has identified 16 ‘types’ of poverty including 5 types of child poverty in Britain today – households where certain problems or factors cluster together to present different types of challenges. Demos’ 3D Poverty report highlighted the importance of the way poverty is understood in devising ways to tackle it.
By considering a total of 20 indicators of poverty, from physical and mental health, housing and education to community-based factors like neighbourly support and political engagement, the project aims to move away from the standard approach to measuring poverty – households earning under 60 per cent of the median income – which, as the present government has acknowledged, is inadequate as either an explanation or description of poverty, towards a more sophisticated understanding that will inform efforts to improve lives on the ground.
Crucial to communicating the human experience of poverty and gaining public support for these measures are the kind of striking images that arise from Save the Children’s report. Material deprivation is only one aspect of poverty, and it does not explain it, but the findings that 14 per cent of children in poverty say they go without a winter coat, for example, or that 13 per cent have stopped asking their parents for anything at all, are not merely headline-grabbing; they convey the reality of people’s experiences in a way charts and numbers do not.
At the same time, what unites the 16 types of poverty identified by Demos and NatCen and the households in the It Shouldn’t Happen Here report is low income. Save the Children’s call for the government to stick to the 2020 child poverty target, encourage employers to pay the living wage, let parents keep more money before benefits are withdrawn (following the introduction of the Universal Credit) and provide help with childcare and living costs for low earners acknowledges this, while providing an insight into the complex range of factors on which Demos’ research will focus.
With an estimated 3.5m children currently in poverty in the UK, a figure the IFS has predicted will rise by 400,000 during this Parliament, and the failure of abstract income measures to inform and connect with the public imagination, it is sharp, visual representations of poverty such as the ones in Save the Children’s report that highlight the need for a multidimensional response all the more.