Dr Andrew Dunn is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Lincoln.  He is the author of ‘Rethinking Unemployment and the Work Ethic’.

Earlier this month the government announced that it is to abandon the official ‘less than 60 per cent of median income’ measure of child poverty, which is based on a ‘relative’ definition of the word ‘poverty’.  In what follows I argue that they are right to reject the relative definition – not only is it flawed, it is also a highly effective propaganda tool for the Left.  Defenders of the relative definition point to its widespread support in academia and beyond.  But as I explain, this support owes much to the ideological position of the academics who invented and promoted the idea.  For too long they have exploited their ‘expert’ ‘scientist’ status to get away with telling those who oppose the relative definition that they are ignorant or misguided (as well as callous) for doing so.

The relative definition of poverty categorises as ‘poor’ those who fall seriously below normal or average nationwide income standards – so it firmly connects poverty to inequality.  It was developed by Peter Townsend in opposition to ‘absolute poverty’, which categorises as poor only those who do not have enough material resources to physically function properly.  ‘Relative poverty’ undoubtedly has its merits; importantly, it recognises that people who cannot afford to buy things suffer more if those around them can.  However, while ‘relative poverty’ is a useful concept, it completely fails as a definition of the word ‘poverty’ because it neglects ‘absolute’ conditions; if, for example, you are at the relative poverty line in Britain you are, in one respect, in the same condition as someone at the relative poverty line in one of the world’s poorest countries, as your income is the same distance below that of the average person in the country where you live.  But in another respect (and hence overall) you are in a far, far better condition – you are much further from starvation as you have much greater purchasing power.

For this reason the relative definition cannot be applied to different countries, or to different eras in the same country, and do what any acceptable definition of the word ‘poverty’ must do – that is, properly demarcate the same level of material hardship.  As my book’s in-depth interviews with 40 Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants found, while living just below the relative poverty line in contemporary Britain is unsatisfactory, it does not usually entail the miserable, desperate hardship that the emotive word ‘poverty’ evokes.  Few of my interviewees said they believed that they were in ‘poverty’, which perhaps sheds light on why most said they would be unwilling to increase their net weekly income by £20 or £30 by entering full-time employment, unless the job in question was particularly suitable or enjoyable.

The flaw in the relative definition of poverty – that it cannot be applied to richer and poorer societies and mean the same thing – was noted by Amartya Sen over 30 years ago. Yet despite the fact that nobody has offered anything like a substantial counterargument to Sen’s, the relative definition is still widely and uncritically subscribed to in social science academia and beyond. To understand why a flawed definition is accepted we need to look at both the political significance of poverty definition and the political commitment of the social scientists involved.

Just about everyone agrees that poverty is terrible and should be tackled as a matter of urgency, so how we define poverty dictates the scale of the problem that we agree must be solved.  As the relative definition usually delivers reports of large numbers in poverty, it therefore implies an urgent need for more redistribution of income and wealth in favour of poorer people, which is music to left-wing people’s ears.  Moreover, Conservative governments tend to look bad against the relative poverty yardstick because their policies are far less redistributive than those of Labour governments; this is largely borne out by UK relative poverty figures since 1979.  Hence, while David Cameron’s decision to endorse the relative definition in 2006 might have helped him mould a ‘caring Conservative’ image, it also arguably created a rod for his own back. A further political implication of poverty definition is that it colours debates about the alleged work-shyness of people reliant on state working-age out-of-work benefits; the relative definition usually classes these claimants as ‘in poverty’, which can make Conservatives who are critical of their behaviour appear callous for not instead focusing purely upon the question of how to remove them from their appalling plight.

It is well established that social policy academia (where debates about poverty mainly take place), is heavily dominated by the Left, with mainstream academics tending to view the large-scale redistribution of income and wealth as a panacea for various social problems (this is discussed by Alan Deacon, and John Welshman).  Therefore it is unsurprising that social policy academics in general show great enthusiasm for relative poverty.  The conservative minority is so tiny that its justified protestations about the relative definition (see David G. Green, David Marsland and Peter Saunders) have been more-or-less drowned out.

Despite being flawed, the relative definition is so widely and uncritically accepted in mainstream social policy writing that many authors use the terms ‘poverty’ and ‘relative poverty’ interchangeably, and they routinely imply that anyone who does not share their support for the relative definition is necessarily completely misguided; this includes people below the relative poverty line, who are said to be in a state of ‘denial’ if they do not consider themselves ‘poor’, even though the reasons they give for implicitly rejecting the relative definition are strikingly similar to those of Sen, a Nobel Laureate.

Importantly, social policy academia has strong links with influential poverty lobby organisations, which include the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).  CPAG’s publications present the mainstream/Left social policy academics’ side of the story – including their fiercely strong support for the relative definition of poverty – as if it were unbiased expertise, in publications with titles like ‘Poverty: the facts’. Indeed, Thatcher adviser David Marsland once likened journalists’ and teachers’ widespread uncritical use of CPAG’s partisan output to relying upon Saddam Hussein for information about the geography of the Middle East. The Conservatives should stand up to this barrage of propaganda by pointing out that the relative definition is flawed. They would have little to fear from voters by doing so, as studies have always found that a majority of the public (usually around 75 per cent) rejects the relative definition.  Sometimes social policy authors imply that the public has consented to their relative definition, but while ‘consensual’ measures of poverty (for example, Mack and Lansley’s) have taken into account public opinion about what items are ‘necessities’, it is the authors, not the public, who have decided how the word ‘poverty’ is defined.

But what definition should the Conservatives use in place of relative poverty?  I am less optimistic than some other critics of the relative definition (for example the IEA’s Kristian Niemietz) about the chances of developing an acceptable definition and measure of poverty, as I feel that all definitions and measures have serious weaknesses.  Furthermore, while I welcome the government’s newfound scepticism about the relative definition, I do not support its apparent plans to include, in its new definition and measure of child poverty, related social problems such as drug addiction and family breakdown. All serious commentators agree that poverty is about a lack of money/income, so the government will provoke substantial criticism if it allows its favoured measure of poverty to be about anything else.