A poverty problem by any other name

Insights Newsletter
15 June, 2018

As a researcher, I sometimes feel a bit awkward or apologetic talking about poverty, and particularly how to measure it.

It is easy to get stuck in the abstract, talking about definitions and statistical accuracy, and forget that there are families struggling and children whose basic needs are not being met.

Meanwhile, there are people working in social services who are making real changes to peoples’ lives regardless of how the government defines poverty.

But there are good reasons for talking about how to define and measure poverty. This is not just a conversation for people in the Wellington beltway, but should be a conversation of national interest.

The Government’s Child Poverty Reduction Bill sets out ten different measures of poverty that will be reported on annually: four primary measures, and six supplementary.

One of the purposes of the Bill is to hold current and future governments publicly accountable for reductions in child poverty. A laudable goal. Most experts also rightfully applaud the Government’s decision to include a range of measures, as different measures emphasise different things.

But for the public to demand better results from government, the public first has to understand the ten measures. If not, it is too easy for the government of the day to emphasise the most flattering measures, rather the ones that reflect the most severe or persistent suffering.

For example, would most people know the difference between fixed poverty lines and moving poverty lines? Before housing cost and after housing cost measures matter too. Do they know the difference between income and hardship measures?

There is a risk that some of the more telling measures will be downplayed. The persistence measure is the only measure to tell us how the same households are going over time. A measure showing households who suffer both income poverty and material hardship also ought to be given more prominence, as this is what is considered the most severe hardship.

For the measures to be compelling, there needs to be public understanding and buy-in. Emphasising measures that are wildly out of step with the public’s perception of poverty could be counterproductive.

The good thing is no government will be able to sugar-coat their actions (or inaction) by relying on favourable measures for long.

When there are reports of people living in cars, the public knew there was a housing crisis well before the government was willing to use the term. Whatever you call it, the need for action on social issues remains.

But if that is the case, it does make you wonder what more the grandiosely titled Bill contributes.

Jenesa will be speaking on this topic at Presbyterian Support Northern’s free public lecture series on child poverty in Auckland (28 June) and Wellington (29 June). You can register for the event by clicking the links.

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