The Alston report is built on statistical voodoo

On Wednesday Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, published his final report.

This Australian academic, who is based in New York, made wide ranging comments over 21 pages that essentially placed the blame for the creation of a “digital workhouse” on post 2010 austerity.  Alston built his argument on a succession of misused and garbled statistics.  He has created a misleading and nakedly political piece of work, and one that lets down struggling families by mistaking political point scoring about austerity with a forensic skewering of real problems in the benefit system.  In Alston’s view the economy is in a good place and the government simply refuses to roll back austerity because of its “ideological agenda”.

Alston makes six howlers with his data:

1. Wealth

The first plank of his argument is that:

 the United Kingdom is the world’s fifth largest economy

Well, yes, of course, but the UK is also very populous and on a measure of GDP per head at purchasing power parity the UK is listed 26th by the IMF in 2018.  So the UK is a middling wealthy country in the EU and OECD to be fair.

2. Poverty

He contrasts the UK’s wealth with its poverty.

one fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty

The 14 million number comes from the Social Metrics Commission work published in September, an attempt to recast existing HBAI poverty data to come up with an agreed measure of poverty as this is a hugely contested area of public policy.

If you scroll down to page 133 you can see their metric compared the HBAI one.  It is lower than it was before austerity in 2009 and remains pretty flat over 16 years.  Like any measure of relative poverty it slowly undulates with the overall economy.  Counter intuitively they tend to be worse in good times and get better in bad.

If you compare relative poverty in the UK with the rest of the EU the UK comes out dead average, not much worse than Germany.

So, Alston’s chosen measure of poverty in the UK is actually marginally better than it was pre-austerity, largely flat over time as you might expect from a relative measure and unexceptional in the wealthy EU.

Only on Thursday of this week Philippa Stroud was promoting the work of the Social Metrics Commission on Conservativehome.  By misusing their data Alston makes it harder for them to succeed.

3. Child poverty

Alston mentions child poverty 5 times, citing forecasts of possible increases.  The reason he talks about forecasts rather than the actual record is that the past tells the wrong story for him.  Again the SMC data shows child poverty slightly better than in 2009 pre-austerity and an OECD comparison shows the UK in a good light not far above Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

4. Destitution

Alston claimed:

1.5 million [of them] experienced destitution in 2017

This comes from work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published in June.  This is a made up number invented by JRF themselves.   Alston did not notice or did not choose to highlight that, on a like-for-like basis, JRF “destitution” had fallen by 25% between 2015 – 2017.  An apparently miraculous positive performance that was left unremarked upon.

The JRF exaggerate their numbers and use constructions such as:

the number of people who were pushed into destitution during 2017

to obfuscate the fact their headline number multiplies a short brush with hardship into a year long experience of “destitution”.  On page 13 they explain how they get from a count of 184,000 in their reference week to a number 8 times larger.

If unemployment statistics were done like this a week of unemployment would keep you in the numbers all year.

There is robust EU-SILC data, share of population living in severe material poverty, for which the data is collected by ONS.  They interview 15-20,000 households in the UK per annum to get this data so it is top quality.  Again on an EU comparison the UK is well below average and only marginally changed from before “austerity”.

5. Food poverty

Alston refers to food banks 10 times in his report.  I won’t even start on how unsound food bank counting is.  Alston says there are no UK measures of food poverty.  Maybe, but again there is robust EU-SILC data on this (data gathered by ONS remember in very large scale survey).  The series Population unable to afford a meal with meat, fish, chicken or a vegetarian equivalent every second day must be some kind of measure of food poverty.  On this measure the UK improving and better than Italy, Germany, France and Belgium.

6. Suicide

Finally, I wanted to mention suicide.  Alston mentions suicide 3 times, once in a frankly snide references to a minister for suicide prevention.

In the UK suicide is historically low, 2017 was the lowest ever year for male suicide and female suicide is at recently typical levels. The UK has very low suicide rates compared to other EU countries. We have the 4th lowest suicide rate in the EU.

Alston simply had no business raising suicide.

Finally

There is a bone headedness about the way that Universal Credit is being implemented.  Alston might have done struggling families more of a service if he had kept his focus on specific system failings rather than having a generalised whinge that does not stand up to scrutiny.

It is too easy for the government to dismiss Alston as someone with an agenda taking a swipe at UK government policy as a result of Alston’s active misuse of statistics.  As an Australian based in New York representing the UN Alston fails to make any international comparisons.  I assume because they would spoil his argument.

In the process Alston has abused the good work of the Social Metrics Commission (SMC).  Alston has ensured that he will not be heard.  Hopefully he has not trashed the SMC brand too.

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