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New Government Report Reveals Critical Gaps in Poverty Data and Questionable Metrics

Tamsin Flower looks into the ‘poverty’ of data on poverty and how thousands of low-income households could be left without the recognition and aid they most need

New Government Report Reveals Critical Gaps in Poverty Data and Questionable Metrics

Tamsin Flower looks into the ‘poverty’ of data on poverty and how thousands of low-income households could be left without the recognition and aid they most need

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A critical lack of accurate and timely data has made it impossible to gain a full picture of poverty in the UK and how to tackle it, experts and charities warn. 

Now, a new Government report seeks to address calls for better data, and present the current state of UK poverty. But patchy data, and questionable metrics, mean this fails to offer a comprehensive view, with serious implications for how the state will respond to the worsening cost of living crisis.

The Poverty in the UK: Statistics report acknowledges that there are gaps and faulty datasets throughout the paper, with its opening pages citing changes in the national median wage, inflation, increased benefits, and underreporting of benefits as barriers to an extensive and exhaustive view of poverty across the country.

Despite these gaps, it is estimated that 11.1 million people were found to be in absolute low income in the year 2020/21. This is the equivalent of nearly two in every ten adults. 

However, this may not tell the whole truth about inequality and deprivation in the UK.

A Bad Metric?

The total relies on the Government using the Households Below Average Income (HBAI) metric to measure poverty – a measure that has long been questioned by academics and those working in the third sector. 

HBAI is split between people living in households with an income below 60% of the median that year – relative low income – and those living in households below 60% of the inflation-adjusted median income in the same year. This chosen rule of thumb also distinguishes between those living in poverty before and after housing costs, taking into account any disposable income.


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However, when other measures of poverty are included, the picture becomes bleaker. 

The number of children in relative poverty was estimated to be 30% in 2020/21, or around 3.9 million. This has increased since to closer to four million. But according to the Government’s estimate for the same year, child poverty was only 24%, when the total is adjusted to account for “underreporting of benefits”. This marked disparity has serious implications when considering how poverty data might influence planning and policy. 

The report also examines ethnicity and poverty, finding that the economic gap between white and ethnic minority households has widened since the pandemic. As reported in this paper, Pakistani and Bangladeshi households are most likely to be living in poverty. 

Here too, the data struggles to tell the whole story. Government methodology breaks down demographics into nine groups, including “other Asian background” and “mixed/multiple ethnic groups”. This absence of specificity can muddy different experiences and outcomes between ethnic groups. It is partly the reductive quality of this data that has triggered poverty and equity discourse within academia and the discipline of alternative statistics.

One of the concerns regarding the Government’s data on poverty is its measure of acceptable minimum income standards for families of different sizes.

While the Government states that £217 per week before housing costs is a sufficient minimum income for the average child-free, working adult, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s annual Minimum Income Standards Survey (MIS) places the figure substantially higher – at £375 per week before housing costs. 

Equally, the Government’s Relative Low-Income data from 2020/21 suggests that the minimum income for a couple with two children should be £454 per week before housing costs. This compares to the MIS calculation of £669 to meet a family’s basic needs – a marked difference of £215. 

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The Missing Millions

All of this adds up to serious gaps in our understanding of the real extent of UK poverty, and, consequently, the efficacy of Government responses and interventions.

“A non-trivial minority of people are currently ‘missing’ altogether from official poverty statistics in the UK,”  Dr Daniel Edmiston of Leeds University told Byline Times. This is, in part, due to a declining response rate to Government income surveys, but also the slowness of the Government to respond to a data gap when it comes to poverty and inequality. This, states Edmiston, has been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

The Government’s current approach to poverty data, he argues, risks rendering vulnerable groups invisible. Not only is this ‘poverty’ of data a poor way to measure deprivation and inequality, but it could also potentially lead to an inadequate and devastating response to the cost-of-living crisis. 

The status quo in current data significantly underestimates the extent and severity of poverty, says Edmiston, making it “harder to effectively evaluate the impact of policy interventions.”

One example of this lack of data on the extent and impact of poverty can be found in the paucity of statistics about homelessness and UK veterans. A freedom of information request submitted by AOAV in 2020 revealed the failure of the UK Ministry for Veterans’ Affairs to collect comprehensive or national data on homelessness or suicides amongst veterans. 

At the same time, a University of Salford study found that “some homeless veterans were being rendered ‘invisible’ in statistics,” as available data on the issue is dependent on veterans referring through local government schemes. 

Veterans are just one finite but significant demographic group that demonstrates a ‘poverty’ of poverty statistics which goes beyond this one section of society. 

The Pandemic, Poverty and Data

When it comes to examples of the ways lack of data can make it hard to assess the breadth and depth of poverty, the Coronavirus pandemic is an excellent place to start.

The pandemic led to fast-tracked emergency policies such as furlough and the Universal Credit uplift, both designed to cushion households from the economic impact of lockdowns. Yet, early on, the third sector began to raise questions about the accuracy, availability, and necessity of trustworthy data on the financial impacts of the crisis, calling for improved visibility and a collective, cross-sector database.  

Until recently, Government data on households in poverty – ie. those with income  60% below the average – was limited to the pre-pandemic years. This delay in data collection has impaired decision-makers when analysing both the crisis itself and possible solutions.

Don’t miss a story

Despite this, some data does exist to help explain the impact of the pandemic on poverty levels.  

A Department for Works and Pensions (DWP) report from 2019/2020 shows the average household income to have increased during the first year of a pandemic. Conversely, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s UK Poverty data for 2019 showed a worsening picture of 2.4 million people, including more than half a million children, to be destitute at some point in the year – an increase of almost half compared with 2017.

Once again, the metric of household income does not tell the whole story. 

By the second year of the pandemic, the food bank charity the Trussell Trust reported that the number of parcels it was giving to children in 2022 had risen by more than 300 since 2019 – between 1 April to 30 September 2021, almost 2,000 parcels were provided for children every day, compared to almost 1,700 in 2019.

This would suggest that the experiences of poverty during the pandemic cannot simply be explained by one metric or measure, and neither can the efficacy or appropriateness of Government policy. 

A profound absence of data on poverty, alongside conflicting methods of measuring this issue, makes it challenging to assess the success or failure of interventions designed to help struggling families and individuals during the pandemic.

This has urgent and significant implications for the crisis the UK now faces: both in terms of the cost of living and the looming recession. Unless the Government can measure the scope and nature of poverty incisively and agree with experts on how to define poverty and minimum income, the risk is that thousands of low-income households could be left without the recognition and aid they most need. 

Given the current poverty of data around UK deprivation, the question of whether inadequate or politically skewed metrics will put thousands ‘below the line’ during a recession is not only valid but urgent. 

Tamsin Flower is an Arts Council England supported theatre writer/director turned public relations director and journalist. She lives in South East London and Huelgoat, Finistère.

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