Event report - Poverty and deprivation: statistics for action

Written by Oz Flanagan on . Posted in Features

The RSS recently hosted the annual Statistics User Conference - looking at the collection, analysis and wider use of poverty statistics in the UK. This unique collection of academics, charities and statisticians gave an insight into the strengths of the long standing poverty and deprivation data in the UK, but also its limitations and its future challenges. The event was jointly sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Resolution Foundation.

The first morning session took a broad look at the current state of poverty related statistics. Hetan Shah, executive director of the RSS, introduced the speakers and pointed out the Society’s history in the area including the work of past presidents Charles Booth and William Beveridge.

Chris Goulden from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation spoke first and introduced the perennial problem of defining poverty, but offered the definition of ‘resources not sufficient for minimum needs.’ In a modern sense this can range from the basics of enough food through to social participation.

{mbox:lightbox/income-poverty-rates-1961-2013.png|width=300|height=217|caption=Click to enlarge|title=Income poverty rates - 1961 to 2012/13}

He then took the audience through the various measures that track poverty followed by a graph that would be used frequently during the day - income poverty rates from 1961 to 2012/13 (see right). He made the point that a comprehensive strategy is needed that makes use of all these measures, a single index can narrow policy too much, tax credits being an example of this.

Matt Whitaker from the Resolution Foundation then drilled down into the different demographics within the graph to demonstrate the complexities of modern poverty. He showed how the fortunes of people in different family situations can now vary. Recent attention has been paid to working parents, but non-parents now lag behind. But the data also shows fathers are doing worse than single men.

For this reason, he said a balanced economic recovery had to address low wages and the evidence from policy changes had to be measured to assess their success or failure.

Former national statistician, Jil Matheson, was next to speak and she raised the UN’s ambitious new Sustainable Development goals that propose to ‘end poverty in all its forms, everywhere.’ These would be different from the UN’s previous Millennium goals because they would set targets for first world nations too.

She also made the point of how the upcoming election would focus a lot of attention on the macroeconomic situation. But these issues were very different from household living standards and warned against ignoring these microeconomic problems. To improve poverty statistics, Jil said the government needed to maintain and develop the resources we have. The timeliness of statistics had to also improve along with the storytelling of the published data.

The BBC’s home editor, Mark Easton, continued with Jil’s storytelling point. He returned to Chris Goulden’s question of how we define poverty, deprivation, exclusion and inequality. In his view, the statisticians need to be clear about what they are measuring in society. He moved on to describe how the political idea of separating the deserving from the undeserving poor came about, from the Poor Laws to the modern talk of ‘strivers’ and ‘shirkers’. For this reason, statisticians need to be more aware of the social issues being blamed on poverty such as family breakdown and debt, which may in fact be symptoms of the problem.

Sharon Witherspoon, director of the Nuffield Foundation, then spoke about the importance of social researchers analysing and tracking the evolution of poverty. She said policy on poverty had to be evidence based and highlighting projects that Nuffield had funded in this area such as ‘Social Policy in a Cold Climate’, which looked at the effects of the major economic and political changes in the UK since 2007.

To make research like this possible, Sharon appealed to the social research community to make the case for data sharing in government. The privacy concerns around this had to be addressed by those looking to use the data by communicating the benefits of data sharing and the safeguards in place to protect it. Staying with this challenge, she also highlighted the threat of the new EU data protection legislation. The stipulation that specific consent is needed for personal data to be analysed, could shut down huge swathes of research in not just social but also medical science.

After a break, the day then broke up into two separate sessions, one focussing on statistics on people, and the other looking at local level poverty statistics. Organisations and charities who use these statistics to inform policy or how they allocate resources praised the data made available by government. However, there were some recurring complaints. The timeliness of statistical releases, the small area quality of data, plus the accessibility of breakdowns and other data all came under scrutiny.

David McAuley of the Trussell Trust highlighted the potential for data held by the third sector. He drew attention to the amount of press coverage that the Trussell Trust’s data on food banks gets. He argued that this was not because of a concerted PR initiative (since the charity only has one PR worker), but instead down to the quality and up-to-date nature of their data base.

The next session of the day gave official statisticians the chance to talk the audience through the intricacies of official releases. Joanna Littlechild explained Department of Work and Pensions statistics on household income and resources and Glenn Everett from ONS talked through the redevelopment of EU-SILC and the new small area income and poverty statistics.

Ed Humpherson of the UK Statistics Authority then discussed how they assess official statistics and introduced a new report on the coherence and accessibility of official statistics in this area. The speakers emphasised the point that timeliness may be an issue for users, but for statistics to reach a high quality takes time. Also, the idea of releasing single measures of poverty and depravation had worthy reasoning, but single numbers could mask different and complex effects taking place.

Jonathan Bradshaw, professor of social policy at the University of York, wrapped up the day with an overview of current state of poverty and depravation statistics. He reminded the audience of how far statistics and research in this area had come since the 1950s. The UK has some of the finest data sources, lengthy time series and small area data available to track this issue in the world.

However, Jonathan reiterated some of the earlier voiced shortcomings and lamented the failure of statistics to bite in government policy. He argued the costs of poverty were huge to the nation, but that this was not well evidenced. He said the risk going forward is that poverty would be moved to the margins of debate or into wider discussions of well-being.


Videos of presentations from other speakers on the day are available on our YouTube channel.

Slides used by speakers on the day can be accessed on our event page for this conference.

Jill Leyland UK Statistics Authority Mark Easton Poverty statistics Joseph Rowntree Foundation Resolution Foundation Sharon Witherspoon

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