Poverty. Despite being a subject everyone seems willing to discuss in regular conversation, first person accounts of poverty seem to draw nervous coughs and a sudden reluctance to make eye contact.
As a working class person, I’ve found it interesting to note that while my upper class companions can describe their second house in Turkey over drinks at the pub, if I happen to mention that once as a child our boiler broke and we went a year without hot water, somehow I am the one that makes people uncomfortable. An unintentional, yet effective, way to stop a person displaying a behaviour that makes the group feel embarrassed.
But don’t worry. As easy and satisfying as it would be to spend the next few paragraphs ripping into the upper class, that’s not why I’m writing this.
What I really want to get into is poverty measurement, and how the recent evolution in defining poverty might help or hinder our quest for gender equality.
A particularly shoddy aspect of growing up hand-to-mouth is the lack of internal acceptance that what you experienced is considered ‘poor’. When you’re young, you grow up blissfully unaware of what other people’s lives or houses or inside-of-fridges look like. You assume everyone’s life looks like yours, because you have no reason to think otherwise.
However, as you grow older and accumulate a wider catalogue of other people’s experiences, it starts to dawn on you that maybe you had a little less than most other people.
Which of course doesn’t mean it was any lesser or worse in the areas that matter. Of course, I believe that being loved and encouraged by your parents is way more important than having money – but I must also question if my parent’s ability to love and support me was in any way hindered by the issues that accompany being working class. After all, studies like this one suggest that poverty affects the way parents respond to their children, specifically “economic hardship diminishes parents' ability to interact with and socialise children in ways that are beneficial to their well-being.”
I digress, everyone already knows that being poor is a raw deal. A much more interesting debate is how we measure this cut off point of the impoverished and how that is a raw deal.
We’ll get into the legislative side of this in a moment (which I promise will be more fun than it sounds), but it’s important to remember that how we chose to define poverty, as a society, will affect the self-regard of the 4.2 million impoverished children in the UK.
Will they grow up thinking of themselves as poor? Is that something that we even want to encourage? Is it better to be realistic and aware, or ignorant and happy? All important questions.
Now to the fun statutory bit.
In 2010 an optimistic, cheering act was created called the Child Poverty Act (excellent summer reading, or indeed, lockdown reading if you feel inclined towards legal jargon and lots of subsections). In this act, defining poverty was based on household income and ‘material deprivation’ – so access (or lack of) to food, clothes, and other necessities. Targets were made to reduce childhood poverty in the UK, targets that – rather hilariously – were meant to be achieved by 2020.
Alas, twas not meant to be. In the spring of 2016 this act was scrapped, after only six years in action. The new fad on the block was the Welfare Reform and Work Act. This cut loose the seemingly logical criteria of poverty determination for the supposedly fairer “indicators” of household worklessness, and the level of education achieved by children when they’re 16.
The more observant of you will notice that indicators are not targets, and as we all know, a good SMART target exists for a reason. The reason being that whoever sets the target will be forced to make a plan of how to resolve the problem, rather than merely noticing that it’s there. As Stewart (2018) describes, the switch made by government from adhering to legal requirements to meet targets, to an effective scrapping of income from official poverty measurements is a dramatic one.
This leaves the administration with less culpability for failing to reduce the levels of child poverty.
It also means that in some parallel universe where the sky is green and the grass is blue and the Child Poverty Act has been allowed to continue, there are only 10% of children living in households with an income below 60% of the 2020 median. Whereas here, that percentage rests at 30%.
A possibly unfair (but definitely satisfying) thought going through your head might be “Bloody Tories”.
Afterall, rejigging the way we define poverty has huge impacts on how we think about impoverished people. When the criteria no longer includes how much literal money you earn or whether you can afford to buy food, and instead highlights whether you work or not (regardless of disability or access to opportunities for work), the focus shifts – and the notions of blame and liability are much more prominent.
It feels easy to lay this at the feet of unsympathetic values towards the lower class, a supposedly classic conservative trait. But let’s try to avoid that and maintain the moral, empathetic high ground – that’s why we’re all liberal after all.
So why does any of this relate to gender equality?
Despite these new guidelines being desperately unhelpful in both public discourse on poverty and identifying poverty, this new perspective might actually be a good thing for gender equality.
That’s right! The macabre and cynical outlook of this article, much like government criteria for poverty, is taking a sharp U turn.
The problem with using household income to reflect poverty guidelines, as a study from the University of Glasgow shows, is that it assumes that all resources (such as earnings, government transfers, and unearned income) are dished out amongst the household members equally. In these more enlightened times, we can see this isn’t true.
So a household is considered poor if the pooled resources of the household fall under a certain amount, and if you live in that household, you are considered poor. This is the principle that underlies the 2010 beliefs of what makes someone a poor person. As a result, it was a widely held belief that all members of each household had the same level of consumption, and the same living standards. This is not true.
As Pahl’s study shows, men and children within the household often consume more, with women using far less of the pooled resources. Further analysis corroborates this claim, leading some researchers to conclude that women don’t get their “fair share” of available household resources. This means that there can be a woman in a wealthy household that, individually, is poor. Equally there can be a man in a poor household that, individually, is wealthy.
When taking this factor into account, the recent changes to poverty measurement should be a good thing, especially when analysing poverty through a gendered lens. While inequalities in the household will still exist, at least this toxic assumption that everyone in every house uses the same amount of resources will no longer inform government policy.
So here we face the problem.
On one hand, we have the Child Poverty Act 2010. An approach to poverty that takes blame away from the people who live off food banks, and have to chose between clothes for their kids or medication. But this act ignores women who are impoverished, whilst living in a wealthy household – as well as the men who take more than their fair share in poorer households.
On the other hand, we have a divisive policy that encourages dangerous discourse on responsibility of the poor (specifically, their own responsibility to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”) but at least, unintentionally, begins to tackle the household inequality issues that up until this point, have been largely ignored.
Personally, I can’t hear the word ‘meritocracy’ without wanting to smash my face into the nearest wall. But I also loathe to put women in the category they so often find themselves in, of having to prioritize themselves last – both financially, and in terms of social equality and acknowledgment. I have no answers here, just ideas (classic Snowflake), but I hope that this can at least illuminate the importance of the way we discuss and define the poverty line.