This is my third post about the Liberal Democrats one day policy conference Creating a Progressive Society held at the LSE on Saturday.
The first of the two break out sessions I attended was “Reinventing the State: Who are the UK’s poorest? How do we best help them?”. This session, organised by the Reinventing the State group, was chaired by Duncan Brack and looked at the question “Who are the UK’s poorest?”
The main speaker was Alistair Muriel, a research economist from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, whose energetic and enthusiastic presentation both inspired the audience and overwhelmed us with information. Richard Grayson, vice chair of the Federal Policy Committee, responded with the politics.
There was far too much detail in the presentations and the fascinating discussion that followed to go into details, but I will tell you what I learnt:
How difficult it is to answer the question
Working out who are the UK’s poorest turns out to be extremely difficult to do. This is partly because the nature of poverty itself is multifaceted and complex. So in order to deal with that we tend to focus on measures of material well-being. But these are again tricky things to get a handle on. Calculating who is poor is an extremely complicated process and is dependent on all sorts of factors and assumptions.
Trends in poverty
Although, for the reasons given above, it varies depending how you look at things certain general trends seem to be quite clear. Poverty, which increased during the years of Tory Government, has been reduced by the policies of the Labour Government. However, in recent years that progress has stalled and, under some measures, actually gone into reverse. This can be seen particularly starkly when you look at child poverty. Labour had made good progress in reducing this but their programme is now in trouble and they are almost certain to miss their stated targets.
The difference between income poverty and consumption poverty
The most common way of measuring poverty is to do so through looking at income. This is because income is easy to measure. However, it is theoretically less reliable. The impact of saving and borrowing behaviour and how that varies over a persons lifetime distorts income measures. Our consumption patterns are more consistent. So consumption is a more reliable measure of someone’s material circumstances. However, it is harder to get accurate data on.
We lack a lot of evidence
Despite the wealth of data provided in the presentation, it was clear that in many ways we know too little about the nature and causes of poverty. We also seem to have too few hard facts about what works in reducing it. In highlighting the need for evidence on one particular aspect Alistair Muriel gave the desperate, but highly memorable plea;
“if anyone knows of such a thing…..tell an economist….somewhere!”
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.