THE Secretary of Work and Pensions is right when he says poverty isn't just about income - there are other characteristics that contribute to an impoverished quality of life.
Refreshing the debate about poverty is timely and welcome, given that current Government policy is driving the incomes of families in the region down with little chance of much improvement in the near future.
In the North East, just under one in four children live in poverty – more than 130,000 children – a completely appalling, abhorrent and totally unacceptable state. Childhood poverty has a dramatically damaging impact on children and their families, not just in childhood years but throughout a lifetime and, in the majority of cases, on to the next generation too.
Negative consequences of childhood poverty include low educational attainment, poor housing, mental illness, teenage pregnancy, substance misuse, suicide and more – the social cost of poverty is huge.
Attitudes to poverty show the public associate being poor with worklessness, with many viewing people on benefits as being unwilling rather than unable to work, fostering a view that impoverished families are responsible for the situation they are in. Not only is this uncharitable and bigoted, it does not reflect the reality. The majority of children in poverty in the North East are in households where people work.
The technical benchmark for poverty is defined as household income at less than 60% of median earnings. As wage levels continue to fall in real terms, the poverty benchmark falls, too. The level of household income which defines poverty is now £251 per week, down from £259 a year before. So, while there are 300,000 people technically no longer in poverty, they, along with thousands of other families are, in fact, worse off, so in that regard Iain Duncan-Smith is right to say income should not be the only consideration.
Wages do matter, though. The fact that children in impoverished families endure such negative consequences is entirely related to income. There is an argument, again presented by Duncan-Smith, that we need to increase the gap between benefits and work to incentivise unemployed workers to value employment. That will do nothing to address in-work poverty.
An alternative is to ensure that employment offers wages at a level that take people out of poverty. It is modern double-speak to suggest that work ought to pay much more than benefits, but have a minimum wage and a minimum income standard that facilitates in-work benefit top-ups to subsidise low-paying employers.
Perhaps the best definition of not being in poverty is an income that allows families to meet their basic needs and enjoy a reasonable quality of life – in that regard, the issue of child poverty is not “marginally better”, but significantly worse.
:: Kevin Rowan, TUC regional secretary