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Measuring Child Poverty

A Distinguished Professor in Social Research at the University of Lincoln has conducted a highly influential study exploring the measures used to evaluate child poverty in the UK. His findings are now enshrined in government legislation.

A Distinguished Professor in Social Research at the University of Lincoln has conducted a highly influential study exploring the measures used to evaluate child poverty in the UK. His findings are now enshrined in government legislation.

The research by Professor Steve McKay, from the University of Lincoln’s School of Social and Political Sciences, challenges archaic methods of measuring financial thresholds. Following the recession, it is becoming less possible to measure poverty in a cut-and-dried way and more important to examine cases on an individual basis – his research therefore clarifies the questions we must ask to accurately identify poverty.

These questions have since been incorporated into the Child Poverty Act 2010.

Poverty was previously measured using families’ incomes, where having an income below a certain level was regarded as being ‘poor’.  Professor McKay identified a number of problems with using a ‘poverty line’ of this kind, which require a number of choices about what to include, how to even-out possible fluctuations in income over time, and how to properly compare the incomes of families with differing numbers of adults and children.

Even once such questions are addressed, the point at which to place the poverty line can then become a relatively arbitrary task, and fails to create a clear division between two meaningfully different sets of experience. There have long been concerns about how income alone can be used as an effective classification tool, when a family living £1 above the line is placed in a different category to those living £1 below. Income measures also fail to include levels of savings, debts, and differing spending patterns – all of which can lead to very different financial pressures.

"In the research we did we went beyond looking at people’s incomes, to instead look at the kinds of activities they are able to afford to do. So can parents take their children on school trips? Can they feed their children well? Can they feed themselves well?"

Professor McKay’s research therefore mandates that one measure of child poverty must be a combination of income and questions about family and child deprivation.It exposes more direct ways to measure living standards by bringing in other criteria, such as levels of debt, the ability to pay regular bills, and the kinds of goods and services that families are able to afford.

The study involved analysing existing data to consider the measures that best relate to poverty and collecting new data on the goods which are regarded as essential for families with children. A number of statistical approaches were employed to establish an initial set of 20 questions, which provide a comprehensive spread of data relating to families’ living standards.

These questions, which include more stringent inquiries about budgets, paying for bills and buying food, are now incorporated into the Family Resources Survey – the key source of information used for measuring low incomes and poverty. More recently, they have been revised to reflect how people are adjusting during the recession.

As well as influencing the national child poverty measure, Professor McKay’s research has also inspired related research in other institutions across the country, as his work continues to bring the issue of child poverty to the forefront of public, academic and political agendas.