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News & views

Poorly defined poverty

[5 Nov 2014] Much uproar about Unicef, a UN agency, declaring that a quarter of Britain’s children live in poverty. It says millions ‘have fallen prey to the dangers of austerity’ during the recession years (Daily Mail, 29 Oct). But the lack of starving, barefoot waifs on British streets means that even the left-leaning Guardian thinks this kind of analysis is a bit loopy. Its writer John Lanchester (5 Sept) says we need to get rid of the word ‘poverty’ in the UK context. In the developing world, he says, it refers to the 1.2 billion people living on less that USD1.25 a day. But to be in poverty in the UK means living on 60% of the country’s median household income of £23,200 a year, which is £13,920 (as one in five households do). This is a fortune by Third World standards, especially when free education and healthcare are added.

The poverty yardstick means that if the median income rises, the number of people cast into poverty also rises; and if the median income falls, many people are miraculously lifted out of poverty. So Lanchester says poverty today is a far cry from what the founding document of the welfare state, the Beveridge Report, called ‘want’ – lacking the necessities of subsistence.

The Week (13 Sept) paraphrases Lanchester thus: ‘This explains why support for welfare spending is at an all-time low: we don’t think these 13 million people really are poor. So let’s ban the word “poverty”: it just makes a sceptical public feel less kindly towards welfare claimants. Instead, let’s call this great scourge of our age by its proper name: inequality.’

Does this really help, though? Parents and carers who, say, help their children to read, write, swim, create computer programs and enjoy the outdoors are promoting inequality as fast as they can go. Should they be stopped? The National Institute for Clinical Excellence has just proposed that schools should add tooth-brushing to their pupils’ daily routine because they aren’t doing it at home. Dr Sandra White, director of dental public health at Public Health England, told the Guardian on 22 Oct: ‘Tooth decay is the most common oral disease affecting children and young people in England, yet it is largely preventable.’ [cont]

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