We’re told that child poverty is at extreme levels, that this is the abandonment of a generation, even that this is a Sin on the Face Of Our Society. This is also all entirely balderdash. Child poverty is lower now than it ever has been in Britain. The truth is that Britain is a little more unequal than it was decades ago, a little less unequal than it was a couple of decades back. For what is being measured, what is being claimed, is all about relative poverty – that is, inequality.
The reason for this being that since we actually have conquered absolute poverty then the left must have something to complain about. What good is politics if problems have been solved after all? How can office be achieved by claiming to have a plan to fix something already fixed? Thus this is nonsense:
The former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown will launch a scathing attack on the failure to deal with rapidly rising child poverty on Wednesday and warn that Britain is creating a generation of children whose sufferings are never talked about.
Speaking at the Edinburgh international book festival, Brown will say it is a national disgrace that the number of children living below the poverty line is set to rise to more than five million by the early 2020s.
Brown, who as chancellor used tax credits and benefit increases to boost the incomes of poor families during the Labour governments of 1997-2010, will say child poverty is heading towards “epidemic proportions”.
Dangly bits, great, big, hairy, dangly bits.
We can tell this story easily enough in three charts.
The definition of child poverty being used is living in a household with less than 60% of median income. Which looks like this over time:
This matches up nicely with the general rise in inequality over the same time period:
As we can see, inequality (worth noting this is after taxes and benefits) has risen over the decades. It’s fallen a bit a a result of the recession but not enough to change the general story. As we can also see median (real, ie after inflation) household incomes have risen.
Now, it is possible to complain about rising inequality. That low in the mid 1970s was too low to be sustainable. At least that’s a generally accepted version of events. But it could certainly be lower than it is. Sweden, Denmark, manage this by taxing more heavily and spending more. But that’s a political choice and it’s one about inequality, not poverty. Which brings us to our third chart:
This is absolute poverty. No, not the World Bank definition of $1.90 a day which doesn’t exist in Britain and hasn’t for at least a lifetime. But to take a level of income in one specific year and then keep that constant, adjusted only for inflation, and see who falls below it. Here it’s 60% of UK median income in 2010. As you can see 80% of children in 1961 were below it, now perhaps 20% are. That’s a helluva reduction in child poverty no? Or, at least, a very large number of children who now lead materially better lives.
All of which is, of course, why poverty is now measured as a relative measure. Because if just good old economic growth – that brought about by capitalism and free markets – cures poverty then what need have we for redistribution programs, indeed what need have we for the left in general? So, talk about how some have more than others instead of about how much people have.
Contrary to Gordon Brown and everyone to the left of Attila the Hun child poverty has been declining in Britain these past 60 years. Actually, it’s been declining these past 250. The only measure we can have that shows it rising is a measure of inequality. And even there this tragedy of the generations, something crying out to the very heavens for rectification, is still that we’re doing rather better than we did in the 1980s and 1990s.
Essentially the very concept of relative poverty is something made up to give people something to complain about. Seeing as we’ve already licked that basic problem of poverty. And how can you have left wing political rhetoric, even left wing politics itself, if that problem’s already done and dusted?