New ways of thinking about poverty

25 May 2016

Article by Hannah Johnson, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Do we need a new understanding of poverty to effectively reduce it?

Our understanding of poverty is changing. Good evidence, which recognises the individual experiences of poverty, is needed to design successful interventions and well-targeted programmes.

Using an income-based definition, poverty can never be completely eradicated as it is measured relative to the income of the population, but the number of poor families can be reduced. Will future Welsh Governments consider different dimensions of poverty in policy-making, such as needs, experiences or even national targets?

Minimum needs

‘Minimum human needs’ are food, shelter and warmth. They are essential to survival, and their absence has severe consequences for physical health and the ability to work or learn.

As argued by the Bevan Foundation, basing policy and interventions around minimum needs moves the poverty debate away from whether or not people on low incomes have 52-inch televisions to the very basics of life – a warm, damp-free home and enough to eat. Of course, experiences of poverty go beyond just minimum needs.

If we look at the minimum needs alongside the traditional income measurement, it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of poverty, and how future governments can minimise or eradicate it:

  • food: taking foodbank usage as a measure of food poverty, just under 15,000 people in crisis in Wales were provided with three days’ emergency food by the Trussell Trust charity in 2011-12. By 2015-16, this figure had risen to nearly 86,000 – an increase of 483%;
  • shelter: the number of households accepted as homeless fell slightly from 6,515 in 2011-12 to 5,070 in 2014-15; and
  • warmth: fuel poverty in Wales has risen, from 29% in 2011 to 41% in 2013.

Evidence and benchmarking

Sound data and analysis at a Wales level, broken down by work status, gender, location, disability, ethnicity and other factors, are critical to ensuring poverty reduction programmes are targeted towards the people that need them most.

Official data on food and fuel poverty are not currently collected or published in Wales. There is also a distinct lack of data on the depth (the severity and persistence) of poverty. Poverty data is also not broken down by demographic factors such as gender, disability and ethnicity. Without these dimensions of information, it is not possible to accurately attribute government actions to progress, and decision-makers are arguably working in the dark. Calls for a better evidence base on poverty in Wales were repeated during the Fourth Assembly, and the issue is likely to arise in the Fifth Assembly.

People versus place

Another debate about effective poverty reduction is the targeting of anti-poverty programmes, which can be:

  • geographic: where services are focused in the poorest areas;
  • demographic: where services are targeted at specific groups of people who are at a higher risk of poverty; or
  • universal: where services are provided to everyone regardless of location, income or demographics.

There are advantages and drawbacks to all of these methods.

Basing programme delivery on location is a logical approach, as geographical poverty data is currently collected, and certain areas have noticeably high concentrations of poverty. But poor people do not only live in poor areas; asylum seekers are an example of how specific high-poverty groups frequently fall outside targeted areas as they have no control over where they are housed, and may be far from the services they need.

Targeting programmes at specific groups of people (such as women, older people, or people with a disability) has the benefit of tailoring services to needs. The problem is the lack of data on who is living in poverty, and how to deliver services to groups of people that are disparately located and have different needs. For example, single women aged over 80 are known to be at a high risk of severe poverty, but the identification of this group, and the effective and efficient delivery of services to them, would be difficult with the current data.

Universal programmes guarantee the same level of service to everyone and are usually ‘early interventions’, but do not take account of different levels of need. As a case in point, free prescriptions for everyone aim to prevent illnesses from getting worse and reduce the cost of administration, but some people receive the service even if they could afford to buy medicine without government help.

The future – obligations and targets

The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 came into force in April 2016, and aims to improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales.

The Act introduced seven well-being goals that public bodies must work to achieve, including ‘a more prosperous Wales’ and ‘a more equal Wales’. Progress will be tracked through a set of indicators, which include: the poverty rates for children, people of working age and pensioners, and the material deprivation rate, which will be collected by the National Survey for Wales for the first time in 2016-17.

But the indicators do not include targets – for instance, the poverty level will be measured, but there is no target to reduce the number of people on low household incomes by a specific number or percentage.

The issues discussed here highlight that the current lack of evidence is a barrier to effective poverty reduction. If better data is collected, it will be easier to attribute progress or failure. Will future Welsh Governments take the risk of setting poverty reduction targets when they may fall short?

Key sources

Fourth Assembly Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee, Poverty and inequality (2015)

Bevan Foundation, National programme to spread prosperity and improve life chances (2016)

Welsh Government, Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 – national indicators (2016)

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