From the moment Frank Field raised doubts about the validity of relative poverty measures, the outrage industry has been up in arms against him.

The poverty enquiry which Field will conduct for the coalition has not even begun yet, but according to Donny Dorling of Sheffield University, Field’s venture shows that David Cameron “clearly does not want a redistribution of the money, the land, the work, the educational resources and the ‘opportunities’ that the rich have expropriated from the poor over the past three decades.”

I have written a number of posts criticising the concept of “relative poverty”. Let me, however, make a conditional defence of it. It is sometimes claimed that researchers focusing on this measure “confuse” inequality with poverty. They don’t. They subscribe to a specific set of highly restrictive assumptions, under which income inequality means social exclusion, and social exclusion means poverty. So under their assumptions, inequality is poverty, and there is nothing counterintuitive about the finding that Luxembourg has a higher poverty rate than Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

The problem with relative rates is that when they are quoted outside of research circles, they are seldom, if ever, presented in this way – as a figure which makes sense under very specific assumptions, which you can accept or reject. What you usually get is a conflation of the rate produced by one poverty indicator with the interpretation belonging to a different one. Witness Dorling:

“…European Union researchers announced that 23% of children in the UK lived in a household in poverty, and that the UK ranked seventh worst out of 27 EU countries by the measure Field would like to abolish. Only in poorer countries, such as Romania and Bulgaria, are a higher proportion of children living in poverty.”

The latter sentence insinuates that the poverty rate should be inversely related to a country’s overall level of prosperity. This would be a perfectly valid claim for an indicator of material deprivation, but not for relative poverty, which has nothing to do with overall prosperity.

Dorling is not an exception. End Child Poverty informs us that “4 million children – one in three – are currently living in poverty in the UK […]. This is a shocking figure given the wealth of our nation.” The UK branch of Oxfam claims that “The UK is the fifth richest country in the world. […] Yet this has not benefited the poorest in society.”


This jumbling of poverty figures and interpretations is unfortunate, because child poverty does exist in the UK. But we would be better served with a contest in producing the most sensible policy recommendations, instead of a contest in producing the most catastrophic figures.

7 thoughts on “Frank Field: speaking the unspeakable”

  1. Posted 25/06/2010 at 09:25 | Permalink

    Kristian, you make an excellent point, but what is really worrying is that social policy academics know precisely what they are doing here. They know that inequality does not have much general political resonance and so they wrap the concept up as poverty, which still retains an emotional pull, and as you say, is seen by most people as an absolute measure. Its a case of changing weapons so they can carry on fighting the last war.

  2. Posted 25/06/2010 at 09:34 | Permalink

    Dorling says that the rich have expropriated “the money, the land, the work, the educational resources and the “opportunities” from the poor”. What possible meaning does this have? In what sense have the poor created money land resources etc? and how exactly have, say, James Dyson, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates etc taken them away from anybody?

  3. Posted 25/06/2010 at 09:37 | Permalink

    PS to Peter – Professor Dorling is a geographer, best known for his innovative mapping techniques, not a social policy academic. The views expressed in the blog are, to put it charitably, those of a concerned citizen and nothing more.

  4. Posted 25/06/2010 at 10:19 | Permalink

    Great post. I am glad to know that someone else in the world has thought of reading a dictionary other than myself.

    I do not think that it would be hard to suggest that many of the ‘impoverished’ in Britain are not truly impoverished. If one is able to survive, isn’t one past the point of poverty?

  5. Posted 25/06/2010 at 13:00 | Permalink

    I think what I hate the most about relative “poverty” is that it conflates real deprivation (in the sense of actually depriving at gunpoint) and ensuing actual poverty which exists in places such as North Korea.

  6. Posted 25/06/2010 at 18:37 | Permalink

    Moreover, none of us, of any economic rank, will shy from redistributing in order to prevent poverty. Which means, specifically: deprivation of food, water, shelter, emergency medical care, and the education to insure the potential to participate in the work force.

    However, inequality is not only a harsh reality, it is a necessary and useful feature of the division of knowledge and labor.

    Furthermore, class metaphysical differences habituate and mandate that if we fund broader ability, these people undermine the social order with their newfound opportunities, regardless of what it has done for them. People never abandon their social classes. And it is possible that they cannot do so.

  7. Posted 25/06/2010 at 22:03 | Permalink

    Len, I know about Dannie, thanks. He is indeed a geographer, but in social and urban policy he is taking on guru status – see the ripples caused by his recent book called ‘Injustice’. He is though profoundly wrong.

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