“I’m going to pretend I haven’t seen that”: child poverty and agnotology

The government released a consultation on the next child poverty strategy yesterday and, at the same time, published a 130 page ‘evidence review of the drivers of child poverty’ . A lot has already been written about the quality of the strategy document with Alan Milburn belatedly coming to life in his role as Chair of the independent commission tasked with holding the government to account on child poverty and calling it ‘beyond Whitehall farce’.

However, little has been written so far about the quality of the evidence review. At 130 pages, one might hope it would be fairly comprehensive. Indeed, it’s explicit purpose is to look at ‘the key factors that make it harder for some families to get out of poverty and the key factors that make some poor children more likely to become poor adults’ (p5). However, a decision to focus ‘on the 13 family and child characteristics identified by a preliminary informal evidence review as most important’ (p5) hints that all may not be what it seems.

Then, on page 12 of the review, we are informed of the full scope of the review:

This evidence review only considers individual and family characteristics and events associated with current and future poverty. It does not take account of the macroeconomic context, in terms of the number and quality of available jobs or the returns to qualifications. This review also does not examine the impact of the institutional framework (e.g. the current educational system) or culture of society. Nor does it consider the interaction between the benefits system and incentives to work, although this will obviously have a role in ensuring work pays. These factors are important as they may limit the extent to which individuals are able to improve their situations through their own agency and changes in these factors could affect the future stability of the associations reported (emphases added).

The authors may as well have stated that they have chosen (or been instructed) to ignore over a century’s worth of social scientific evidence on the causes of poverty in the UK. Tom Slater’s excellent article on ‘the myth of Broken Britain’ and the production of ignorance by politicians and think-tanks about poverty in the UK appears even more relevant today than it was when it was written, and it was certainly relevant then. The report effectively pretends not to know about or have seen some of the most important findings of some of the most significant research studies that have shaped and improved our understanding of poverty. In my previous job I produced a Working Paper looking at the use, misuse and occasional abuse of evidence in relation to poverty. Included in this paper is a reference to the work of Glennester et al who carried out a review of 100 years of poverty and policy for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. In summarising the early studies of poverty by Rowntree and Booth, the authors conclude that:

Explanations we are familiar with today – unemployment generated by economic cycles, the changing needs of families over their life cycle and the rigidity of wages compared to changing family needs over a life time – were already formulated.

So why the ignorance on the part of the authors of the evidence review? Maybe they have been tasked with ‘finding’ only evidence that suits a certain policy direction – a case of ‘policy-based evidence making’ perhaps? Peter Townsend, perhaps the most influential researcher into poverty in the last 50 years, if not longer, understood only too well the potential for this to happen. He remarked that:

like other concepts, poverty can be given different meanings by professions, governments and bureaucracies. One of the tasks of the social scientist is to bring out how concepts tend to be the creatures of the arbitrary exercise of power; and to look beyond them to a more democratic representation of interests in the meanings they are given. (Townsend, P. 1993)

It would appear therefore that, despite talk in recent days of new ‘measures’ for child poverty being put on hold, we are still being treated to a narrative that, whilst not necessarily new, is still significantly different from what is widely known about the causes of poverty in the UK.

References

Glennester, H., Hills, J., Piachaud, D. & Webb, J. (2004) One hundred years of poverty and policy, York: JRF

Townsend, P. (1993) ‘Theoretical disputes about poverty’, in Townsend, P. The international analysis of poverty, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf

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