Since I blogged a couple of weeks ago on the reality that the Tories’ changes to the benefit system are going to force at least 1.2 million more children into child poverty, I’ve been challenged several times on Twitter and elsewhere by right-wingers along the lines of:
Relative poverty isn’t real poverty! No child in this country is poor compared to children in Africa!
Knowingly or otherwise, they were parroting government ministers. On 15 Jan Esther McVey, Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, told the House of Commons:
The Government strongly believes looking at relative income in isolation is not a helpful measure to track progress towards our target of eradicating child poverty…the Government is currently consulting on better measures of child poverty that will better reflect the reality of child poverty in the UK today.
Only last week her boss, Iain Duncan Smith, gave a speech to a children’s charity which grabbed headlines for its claim that wasteful parenting, and not low income, is responsible for child poverty – and went on to say:
for too long, I believe, the common political discourse has been lagging behind – fixated on a notion of relative income
Those right-wing challengers – and the ministers – manage the neat trick of being partially correct in fact while missing the point entirely.
Child poverty in this country may ‘only’ be relative, and not the ‘absolute poverty’ of some children in Africa and elsewhere – but it is still literally a killer, and a blight both on the lives of the children affected and on the health of our society as a whole.
Absolute poverty – having so little money that you’re unable to pay for food, shelter or clothing – is an obvious killer. But what is less popularly known is that relative poverty – being poor compared to the average and the wealthy in a society – also costs lives.
But the fact that it isn’t prominent in the popular awareness does not mean that the fact is in question. So many studies have proven the link between inequality in a society and poorer health and shorter lifespans that a journal of medicine has called it ‘ubiquitous‘ (found everywhere).
A study by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that
Economic and social circumstances affect health through the physiological effects of their emotional and social meanings and the direct effects of material circumstances
and concluded that
In rich countries wellbeing is more closely related to relative income than absolute income
A conclusive finding that Ms McVey and Mr Duncan Smith couldn’t be more wrong when they claim that relative poverty is not a relevant measure for the UK compared to absolute income.
How can this be? Studies indicate that the sense of injustice, the stress associated with it and with the sense of being regarded as inferior or unworthy all contribute to increased health problems. Combined with poorer diets, poor housing and limited leisure choices, these all add up to more chronic illness and the lower life-expectancy that results.
Whatever the detailed reasons, the fact of the connection is clear. The graph below, from the Journal of Behavioural Medicine, shows the relationship between Socio-economic Status (SES) and morbidity (ill-health) and mortality:
Don’t be deceived by what the Tory-led government tries to claim. Any increase in relative child poverty means huge numbers of people suffering not only a reduced quality of life, but a shorter life expectancy.
The Tories love to style themselves as the party of opportunity. Let’s leave aside the obvious fact that David Cameron’s goal of ‘spreading privilege’ just means more inequality for the moment. Iain Duncan Smith, just last Friday, claimed that there was no need to pay attention to inequality of relative incomes because, among other things, ‘educational failure‘ is a more telling measure.
But studies show that relative poverty is one of the key causes of ‘educational failure’ – in which case trying to divorce educational failure from relative poverty as a measure is meaningless. A study by the charitable Joseph Rountree Foundation (JRF) showed that as well as affecting “health: physical and mental health, public health issues”, relative child poverty impacted on
education: including low educational attainment and skill levels
Children in relative, not just absolute, poverty are far more likely to leave school with poor qualifications and commensurately worse life prospects – condemned to a high probability of being trapped in the same poverty in which they grew up. In his study for the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), Donald Hirsch reached the following shocking conclusions:
- By age three, being in poverty makes a difference equivalent to nine months’ development in school readiness.
- At each stage of compulsory schooling, the poverty gap grows. In particular, there is a big jump early in secondary school, with poor children nearly two years behind by the age of 14
The blight on the lives of children growing up in relative poverty is not limited to lower achievements at school. Through this poorer educational performance, relative poverty also leads to the following disadvantages that last for life:
- low status and precarious employment, worklessness and low levels of employability;
- inhibiting and anti-social behaviour including crime, smoking, substance misuse and suicide;
- income, assets and material hardship;
The report’s conclusions do not finish there. Children raised in relative poverty are also more likely to suffer
- family and personal relationship problems, including family difficulties
- child abuse, local authority care, fewer friendships and more social isolation, future relationship problems and degraded family formation;
- shame, stigma, lack of autonomy and low self-esteem.
A national disgrace
IDS may find that relative poverty and the social and income inequality it represents are irrelevant to the poverty issue and to the welfare of our nation’s children. But the damaging effects of relative poverty, including relative child poverty, are so clear and so uncontested by experts that the UK’s standing as one of the most unequal societies in the developed world is nothing short of a national scandal.
In 1996, after 17 years of Tory government, the UK was officially the most unequal country in the developed world, with inequality as great as that of Nigeria.
By 2010, the subsequent Labour government had managed to bring the UK ‘down’ to number 5 in the world table:
But this government’s cuts and caps to the incomes of the lowest earners in the UK are inevitably widening the gap again – as Esther McVey’s convoluted defence of her government’s performance on child poverty inadvertently demonstrated.
For the UK, even after the financial crisis still one of the world’s most prosperous countries, to have almost 4 million of its children in poverty – relative or otherwise – is a national disgrace.
IDS, Esther McVey and others can wriggle and squirm, or posture and bluster, all they want. The facts tell their own story – and they say that the government should be hanging their heads in shame.
Let’s make sure they’re hanging them in defeat at the next election.