In July, the British government announced a change in the target for child poverty in the UK, moving away from a measure based on income to focusing on the “root causes” of poverty such as unemployment and family breakdown.
The move, which came before a big cut in tax credits, has sparked much criticism. Some wondered whether the government was shifting the goalposts, others whether it was trying to abolish the measure altogether in anticipation of a likely rise in child poverty.
Last month, the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions showed that the percentage of children in relative and absolute poverty was unchanged, although there was a statistically insignificant fall of 100,000 for both measures. The overall number in absolute poverty was 2.6 million, while the number in relative poverty remained at 2.3 million.
Moving away from an income measure as the main target for child poverty may not be a bad thing per se; using income as the sole indicator does not draw a full picture about outcomes for children. My recent research in Burundi, Ethiopia and Vietnam tried to go deeper by asking parents and their children what it means for a child to be poor.
The interviewees spoke of issues such as going to school and living in safe and secure shelter. But they also said being treated the same as other children and receiving love and affection were just as important as family income, if not more so. Having a good income does not necessarily ensure positive material, psychological or social outcomes for children.
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At the same time, a good income helps parents to care for their children, as shown by the role cash transfer programmes play in promoting child wellbeing and care in countries such as Ghana andRwanda.
Caregivers in those countries said the ability to buy items, including food and clothing, not only ensured children’s basic needs were met but also made parents feel more confident in their role as caregivers. In turn, the relationship between parents and children improved.
In Burundi, the proportion of children eating at least two meals a day increased from 32% to 62% among participants in Concern Worldwide’s Terintambwe livelihoods programme. This improvement appears to be the result of having more cash in hand, but also of greater awareness of feeding practices and improved confidence.
So family income is important, but it is not all that matters.
Parents and children in Burundi, Ethiopia and Vietnam said achieving good outcomes for children is a complex task involving a variety of influences: parents, other family members, the community and – notably – government.
In Ethiopia, I found that parents’ awareness of the importance of education increases children’s chances of going to school, yet a lack of employment opportunities undermines the value that parents and children attach to education.
In Vietnam, social protection programmes run by municipal authorities and the government were considered crucial in allowing children to go to school despite a lack of family income.
In Burundi, parents indicated how regular support from case managers helped to improve their skills and confidence, both as entrepreneurs and caregivers.
In other words, measuring child poverty on the basis of family income is far from perfect and will inevitably lead to groups of deprived and vulnerable children being excluded from policies that they desperately need.
Yet focusing on the root causes, particularly at the level of the family alone, is worse. It not only disregards the complex factors that determine whether a child is doing well or not, but also places the responsibility for tackling child poverty on parents and children themselves.
In a perfect world of child poverty targets and measurement, income measures would be complemented by non-income ones, and analysis of root causes would go beyond what happens within the family. Anything less risks turning poverty analysis into a blame game rather than a problem to be solved.