We need to address our poverty of language

by Peter Goddard

So Ian Duncan Smith busy is developing proposals for new measures for child poverty, to include various social and lifestyle measures.

That sounds sensible enough, but there are some on the left who were quick to disagree. Polly Toynbee was one of them. On the eve of Duncan Smith’s announcement she was doggedly insisting that “the only way to measure a nation’s poverty over time,” she states, “is to count how many fall below the norm, and how far. This international measure counts anyone on less than 60% of a country’s median income.”

As Neil O’Brien points out, though, this “effectively conflates poverty and inequality.”

Needless to say, equality and measures thereof are of vital importance, and much valuable research indicates that equality is a vital national good. But equality is not poverty.

The dictionary (OK, dictionary.com) defines ‘poverty’ as “the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support.”

According to O’Brien’s research, most people share this understanding, “(70pc) think it still means not having enough to eat, or a place to live.”

In fact, almost nobody outside the political classes, when asked to define poverty, will ever use the words ‘median income’.

By confusing relative poverty with absolute poverty, Toynbee and her ilk enable some stirring invective. But it also creates some curious paradoxes.

It is, for example, perfectly feasible for everyone in an economy to improve their income and become visibly better off but, through an increase in inequality, this to result in more people falling poverty.

So by using this measure you can become materially better off whilst simultaneously plunging into poverty.  Most would agree this seems counter-intuitive at best, manipulative spin at worst.

This is not to oppose this measure in and of itself. Incomes relative to median help us comprehend the structure and performance of our economy and it should not be underestimated. The point here, though, is one of language.

Were commentators to refer to this measure as ‘relative poverty’, there would be no argument.  But, caveats and qualifications do not make for stirring rhetoric.  And one only has to read the comments below the line of Polly Toynbee’s piece to see how much this sermon has delighted the choir.

But in doing this, she also makes things easy for the other side. “Nordic countries have all but eliminated poverty by pulling the bottom up towards the middle,” Toynbee points out. The other unfortunate result, though, is that the same effect can be achieved by driving the middle down to the bottom, enabling the right-wing fallacy that socialism is about bringing everyone down to an equally low level.

The temptation to reach for a more emotive, but less accurate lexicon also applies to the phrase ‘child poverty’.  It is this, after all, that the Blair government pledged to eradicate all those years ago.

But what does it mean?

As I child, I had an income of £1 a week (it was a long time ago).  Although this placed me into the category of extreme poverty, I did not feel destitute and was able to afford all the Wham! bars and Monster Munch I desired.

Obviously, what is really meant by ‘child poverty’ is ‘parental poverty’ or ‘family poverty’, but of course it’s much more difficult to move hearts and minds with that kind of talk.

In general, as long as journalists and politicians are using emotive terms such as ‘poverty’ in a manner at odds with what most people understand by the word, they are short-changing the public and damaging their own credibility.

In an era of ever-decreasing trust in politicians and other representatives, this is something we cannot afford.

So this review of measures of poverty is perhaps an opportunity.

Yes, it is quite possible that the Conservatives will use this proposal to create a set of measures that add up to little more than a Parental Fecklessness Index.

But on the other hand, the proposal opens the debate about what shapes a child’s chances in life, and that gives us an opportunity to introduce some clarity to our language, dispose of the misuse of emotive, hot-button words like poverty and maybe, just maybe even reintroduce another word that has fallen out of favour of late: class.

Peter Goddard is a sales and marketing consultant

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3 Responses to “We need to address our poverty of language”

  1. swatantra says:

    I can’t remember who it was that first introduced the ‘Mars Bar’ as an index of productivity and labour, but it seems to me that the true indicator of poverty these days may well be whether the family has or has not a ‘plasma screen tv’.
    But I would agree with Goddard that whenever ‘poverty ‘is discussed you also include the natonal poverty/relative poverty figures as well, just to give you an idea of how better off you are than 2/3 of the worlds population.
    The debate around poverty is often skewed. For example although the USA is the worlds richest nation because it has no proper welfare state, still 1/3 are in ‘poverty’ and are forced to soup kitchens.
    But there should still be an internationally agreed measure of poverty, rather than IDS making up his own, and if there were then the USA and UK would probably come out by a factor of 1000 compared to some of the really poorest in the world. It would then give people here a more realistic perception and understanding of what real ‘poverty’ is.
    And Goddard is probably right, its more likely that ‘class ‘ has more bearing on a childs future prospects ie family pressure and peer and environmental pressures, than all the opportunities opened up to them. But that is not to say that opportunities should not be opened up: in fact the more the better, but will those opportunities be taken up, is the question.

  2. Frederick James says:

    Good article. I do not suppose for a second that Toynbee is able to comprehend the anomalies that inevitably result from the absurd median income criterion.

    This is only one of the many policy areas where the paucity of scientists and mathematicians in public life is hugely damaging. One only has to listen to the mixture of unselfconscious bafflement and deprecation with which the likes of John Humphrys approach anything to do with numbers to see that it is acceptable for our masters to be functionally innumerate.

    Paradoxically this means that, when bad scientists acquire a political agenda, senior politicians are putty in their hands.

  3. Anon E Mouse says:

    It drives me nuts when toffs like Polly Toynbee or Harriet Harman start lecturing us about things they have no concept of.

    I wonder if Polly considers the poor from her villa in Italy?

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