By Michael Hanlon


The most bizarre sentence I think I have ever read in a new report topped a story on BBC News online this week. It read, and I quote directly: 'The number of children living in poverty in the UK fell by 300,000 last year as household incomes dropped, official figures have revealed.'

In that single line is encapsulated one of the great statistical paradoxes in British social policy, namely the rather bizarre way we define poverty.

Officially, the government defines ‘child poverty’ as being when a child is brought up in a household whose total family income (from all sources) is less than 60% of the UK median. So you can end up with the paradoxical situation of fewer poor people as a consequence of the country becoming poorer overall.

Paradox: 'Child poverty' in Britain has dropped as a result of a fall in the median income

Paradox: 'Child poverty' in Britain has dropped as a result of a fall in the median income

So let’s have a look at that definition. Firstly, when discussing relationships between different levels of income it makes more sense to talk about the median figure, which is simply the middle figure in a set of numbers, rather than the more normal ‘average’ of the mean, which is the total of all incomes divided by the number of households.

The mean, considered the gold standard of averages, is not always the best. For instance, consider the number of legs possessed by the average person in Britain. In terms of the mean this figure is not what you’d think. In fact, it is easy to prove that the average Briton has not two but about 1.9993 legs. This is because while a small but significant percentage of the population has zero or one leg, almost nobody has three or more. This generates a (meaningless) mean figure which does not reflect what you will see if you walk around looking at real people.

It is the same with incomes. The mean figure will be meaningless because while a small but significant percentage of the population will earn millions of pounds a year, and a few hundreds of millions of pounds, only a few serious debtors and tax-dodgers earn less than nothing. Thus the ‘mean’ figure will be artificially high and not a true relation of what people actually earn. 

So using the median in this case is sensible. But is it a good way to define poverty?

The problem is that if poverty is defined as kicking in at a certain percentage of any average, you create several anomalies. Firstly, however rich your country becomes, providing there is at least SOME inequality of income then some people will be defined as ‘poor’, even if they are living in golden palaces and with access to a fleet of Rolls Royces.

That is not the case in Britain of course, but the fact is that this is an extremely rich country both in current global and certainly historical terms.

Perspective: 'Poverty' in Britain is non-existant by global standards

Perspective: 'Poverty' in Britain is non-existant by global standards

In fact the median household income of about 419 a week puts us comfortably in the top few percentage points in the world. In cash terms, Britain’s poorest people are far, far richer than the vast majority of people alive today.

But if costs are taken into account they could still be poor, right? The trouble is, that thanks to what is still quite a comprehensive welfare safety net few people – probably hardly any people in fact – should be truly ‘poor’ in any real sense of the word in this country.

By ‘poor’ most of us would think of things like no fixed abode, not enough money for basic foodstuffs, no access to furniture and no access to education or basic healthcare. This is indeed what being ‘poor’ means not only in Africa and India but in the United States and some other ‘rich’ countries as well. I can believe we are seeing the first flickerings of true poverty in Greece, for example. An almost unimaginable and terrible thing.

Social unrest: We are seeing the first flickerings of 'true' poverty in Greece

Social unrest: We are seeing the first flickerings of 'true' poverty in Greece

But in Britain? No. When poverty is defined in relative terms as it is now (and there are moves to change this) it is clear that being ‘poor’ in modern Britain really means things like ‘no car’, no foreign holidays and perhaps having to rely on second-hand clothing and furniture.

We surely need to redefine poverty, and especially child poverty, in terms of absolutes, such as access to a decent diet, safe and warm housing, clothes and dental care and so on. Otherwise you fuel the (not always inaccurate) claims of those who suggest that ‘poverty’ in modern Britain simply equates to not being able to buy the latest trainers or flat-screen telly.

But again, it is not as simple as that. In a country like Greece, where everyone aspires to join the middle classes and where ambition and education are all, poverty does indeed mean soup kitchens and homelessness. But here there is a terrible poverty of aspiration that seems to have little to do with actual incomes. It is this that needs to be tackled, and doing so will be far harder than simply giving people more money.  

Here's what other readers have said. Why not add your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

The comments below have not been moderated.

Can we never debate on the facts? From 2003 The indicators which are tracked in Opportunity for all reflect the Governments view that poverty is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. The indicators for children and young people: Children in workless households Low income (relative, absolute and persistent measures) Teenage pregnancy Key Stage 1 (7-year-olds) attainment in Sure Start areas Key Stage 2 (11-year-olds) attainment 16-year-olds with at least one GCSE 19-year-olds with at least a Level 2 qualification Truancies School exclusions Educational attainment of children looked after by local authorities 16- to 18-year-olds in learning Infant mortality Serious unintentional injury Smoking rates (for pregnant women, and children aged 1115) Re-registrations on Child Protection Register Housing that falls below the set standard of decency

For a nation that spent billions keeping the masters of the universe in their avaricious lifestyles it's a bit much for the rightwing to then play that old Thatcher 'no such thing as society' card. Post bailout that sour old chestnut of using a 40" TV as a totem of outrageous profligacy wears very thin, when such items cost no more than an average week's salary. The nation looked after the super rich when their naked greed spectacularly backfired and it is currently looking after the property speculators by pegging interest rates to 0.5%, while savers lose money. The UK is one of the most unequal nations in the West. It's about time our indebted rich did something about it instead of making things worse.

A paradox indeed,If the country becomes much poorer, we'll all be rich.

poverty of soul is the real reason for the feral households in this country , by giving them enough to live a fairly luxurious life the State avoids having to deal with the mayhem this minority of families would cause if they had to maintain the lifestyle they believe they deserve , cutting their benefits wouldnt result in them going to get a job it would result in them taking from the weaker in society , no amount of Government spending on advisors will cure this problem, these people have existed within every society through the ages . Just because people are poor it doesnt mean their like this ,many struggle and strive their whole lives and get nowhere

no one is falling for figures anymore we can see the plight of poverty all around us . these doctored figures will only fool governments .

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