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Child poverty gymnastics

Gordon Brown knowingly misleading on child poverty

You might think that an ex-prime minister, with a track record for concern for social issues and eye to his reputation and legacy, would keep comments he made on an issue as important as child poverty strictly in the realms of the factually accurate.  Child poverty is real for too many children and creating a distorted picture cannot help them.  Unfortunately Gordon Brown is happy to spread complete untruths about this important subject.  

Earlier this month Gordon Brown said: “Child poverty figures have risen from three million to four million and will rise beyond five million.” This is so mathematically nonsensical as to be a lie.

Brown and his staff know the main source of child poverty data in the UK is the DWP’s Households Below Average Income (HBAI) dataset which has the official status of a National Statistic. Within this dataset there are four main measures of child poverty – relative child poverty before and after housing costs and absolute child poverty before and after housing costs. The absolute numbers are not widely used or quoted and are slightly confected. Poverty before housing costs doesn’t mean that much as we all, on the whole, live our lives after housing costs. So the main number that everyone uses is relative child poverty after housing costs (AFC).


Relative poverty is a useful idea as we don’t really want to measure ourselves against historical standards but it is worth understanding what it is. It is people who live in households with less than 60% of median household income. Many people will be above this line, maybe paying a lot for child care and feeling really quite poor. Others will be below it, maybe with one income, a stay at home partner and a mortgage, but feeling their children do better that way. It is an entirely arbitrary measure and does not help us to identify and eliminate material burdens from children’s lives. That is another challenge altogether. The Labour party, the child poverty advocacy industry and the Left in general like this number because it is large and dramatic.

Which brings us back to Brown and his bent advocacy.

He says “Child poverty figures have risen from three million to four million and will rise beyond five million.” Below I have listed 13 years of New Labour child poverty numbers and 9 subsequent years of Conservative ones so you can judge for yourself.  Note these numbers are slow to emerge and the 2019/20 data won’t come out until March next year so the latest numbers we have is for 2018/19. 

The numbers haven’t dropped below the 3.6 million achieved in the first couple of years of the Coalition government.  And they haven’t risen above the 4.3 million they hit in the early New Labour days.  A mathematician rounding these numbers numbers down would say the number has been 4 million throughout.  A mathematician averaging across the 13 years of New Labour would come up with an average number of 3.95 million.  Across the 9 subsequent Conservative years the average is slightly lower at 3.88 million.  Yes, the numbers do fluctuate typically falling in recessions and rising thereafter.  

Note the rise in the child population.  The relevant population rose 500,000 in the 13 New Labour years.  And by 800,000 in the next 9 years.  In fact the rise in population accounts for most of the rise is child poverty numbers from 2009/10 to 2018/19, 240,000 out of the 300,000 rise.  Note also that the Labour party, the child poverty advocacy industry and the Left in general keep trying to steal the 2010/2011 datapoint as the end of New Labour to make the jump in the numbers seem larger, 600K, not 300K.  

This point is underlined when you look at the percentages – which is a more sensible way of looking at relative numbers in any case.  The most recent peak in relative child poverty AHC was in 2006-8 at 31%.  It was 30% for two years at the end at the end of the New Labour era, it slumped as middle earnings were hit by the effects of the financial crash and returned to 30% for the last 4 years.  You can complain that relative child poverty is fairly static if you want.  You cannot argue that it is increasing (as Gordon Brown does misleadingly).  

Brown’s assertion that child poverty “will rise beyond five million” is almost certainly nonsense.  First of all it is a guess.  There is no research or analysis to back up this assertion.  Indeed the way the relative poverty numbers work relative poverty is likely to fall as it is almost always does in hard times.  If middle incomes are depressed in a recession then lower incomes comprising a larger share of social security payments look more generous.