Frank Field MP
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We need a new dynamic poverty measure

30 April 2012
child poverty Today Frank Field MP speaks at the Policy Exchange conference ‘Towards a Better Child Poverty Target’ to argue for moving from a financial definition of poverty to one that centres on life chances. The event has been organised in advance of the results of the 2010 child poverty targets being announced – that only 1.7 million children should live in poverty. They are widely expected to be missed, despite since 1997 the Government spending £150 billion, and the economic recession lowering median earnings.
In June 2010 Frank Field was appointed by the Prime Minister to undertake a Review of Poverty with the specific aim of examining the case for reforms to the current poverty measures, in particular for the inclusion of non-financial measurements. Mr Field’s paper ‘The Foundation Years: preventing poor children becoming poor adults’ did just that.
The report argued for a new dynamic measurement of poverty, the Life Chances Indicators, to be introduced, which, it was advocated, should be used to drive policy with the aim of breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty, whereby the children of poorer households tend to remain poor in adulthood.
Children currently arrive at school, at age five, with a spread of abilities. By age 3 it is possible to identify gaps in attainment between richer and poorer children. Poorer children generally achieve lower levels of attainment, and this gaps remains throughout the school years: children who arrive at school in the bottom range of ability tend to remain there after 12 years of compulsory education.
The Life Chances Indicators were proposed in relation to the evidence that shows that it is possible, generally speaking, to predict at the age of five where children will end up when they enter adulthood. While the report was in no way determinist in its approach it did conclude that before children attend school there is a window of opportunity to ensure children are as well developed as possible, and therefore better prepared to make the most of their schooling.
The proposed Life Chances Indicators were therefore established to monitor how well developed children are. They cover three areas: child-based factors, parent-based factors and environment-based factors, such as the quality of childcare.
The measures as they stand are robustly assessed and comprise short inventories which assess various skills which have been shown to be determinants of good life chances. The measures have been constructed based on the available evidence and have been tested by the University of Bristol.
By driving policy to successfully improve child outcomes at age five, and therefore narrow the attainment gap between richer and poorer children, children will be better placed to make the most of their schooling and therefore graduate with better levels of attainment than as at present, which should mean that no longer will the circumstances of a person’s birth dictate their life achievements.
Frank Field said: “The Labour Government’s ambition to abolish child poverty was a laudable aim. However it is clear that the policy they employed – of income transfers on a massive scale – did not work. Nor are they sustainable to meet the 2020 target would require £19 billion in income transfers (based on 2007 child poverty figures).”
An anomaly of an economic recession is that the poverty figures can appear to improve, as median income falls, however the jury is no longer ‘out’ on the value of the current measures. The measures as they stand promote a single policy of pushing household income above an arbitrary line, with no regard to whether it matters whereon the income spectrum households sit.
In 2010 I advocated a new measure of poverty running alongside the financial measures. The Life Chances Indicators could measure the progress the country is making against the only strategy we can employ to eradicate poverty in Britain – by radically up-skilling the workforce.”

You can watch the full debate here.


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