Letter: Truly poor or just unequal?

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The Independent Online
Truly poor or just unequal?

Sir: The reason why the Child Poverty Action Group is now, in your words, just "an obscure interest group" is not because poverty is "out of sight, out of mind" (leading article, 4 June). It is instead because for too many years CPAG had made grossly inflated claims about the extent of poverty.

The public eventually caught on to this fact that there actually aren't all these millions of poor people starving, undernourished, or outside of the state's welfare safety net. They therefore lost interest in "poverty". The media followed. Even the then august sociology journal New Society lost patience with the CPAG as long ago as 1986. Quoting figures from my letter in the Independent (9 November 1986), the journal castigated the group for exaggerating the extent of poverty, which it had claimed totalled 16.4 million (including those "on the margins of" poverty).

Now we have the Rowntree Foundation telling us that 14 million people are in "poverty". This looks an improvement on the 1986 figure, though a different definition of poverty has been used. Nowadays if your income is below half the average "equivalised" (adjusted) household income you are deemed to be poor. Thus, "poverty" is now defined merely as inequality in incomes.

What does this definition of poverty tell us about the actual level of income poor people survive on? It is not immediately obvious. It is even more difficult to imagine what gross wage one must earn to escape poverty. Which is why I have produced a table of poverty thresholds giving examples of what poverty means in 1996 (Liverpool Quarterly Economic Bulletin, published next week). It turns out that, for example, a couple with three children living in a pounds 70,000 semi in some leafy suburb earning pounds 20,000 a year can be regarded as poor under the JRF definition.

The new inequality definition of poverty, in again exaggerating the extent of the problem in Britain, will be as counter-productive in creating concern for the genuinely poor as the original CPAG definition was.

PAUL ASHTON

Eastbourne, East Sussex

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