Why how we measure poverty matters

Tessa Coombes: @policytessa

Tessa Coombes, PhD student in the School for Policy Studies, former councillor, ex-policy director at Business West, and part-time blogger considers the latest debates in poverty measurement as illustrated in an event organised by the Centre for Poverty and Social Justice

There’s an interesting debate that’s been going on for some time now about measuring poverty and getting the issue onto the agenda so people sit up and take notice in the right way. It’s an area of academia that I haven’t really engaged in before, but one where I have a personal interest in seeking to see the debate move in the right kind of direction. A direction that takes us away from the concept of demonising the poor and those living in poverty and instead acknowledges the levels of inequality and seeks to do something about it in a way that benefits those most in need. The recent Policy & Politics conference in Bristol had inequality and poverty as one of its main themes and at the time I wrote a couple of blogs on the plenary sessions – the human cost of inequality (Kate Pickett) and why social inequality persists (Danny Dorling). Both these presentations provided plenty of evidence to illustrate just how significant a problem we have in the UK and how it is getting worse.

Last week I went to a seminar on this very issue run by the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice at the University of Bristol, where the subject of debate was about how to gain traction and create change from academic research and evidence. The focus of the discussion was about using living standards rather than poverty indicators and the difference this can make when trying to attract the attention of politicians and policy makers. It was an interesting and thought provoking debate which gave some pointers on how we can translate measures and indicators into policy and action, as well as why it’s helpful to look at living standards for everyone rather than just looking at those in poverty.

The first speaker, Bryan Perry from the Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand, talked about how by using evidence in the ‘right’ way, that was responsive to the needs of politicians, using the Material Wellbeing Index, they had managed to gain traction and make an impact on policy. The key was talking about trends rather than absolute numbers, providing simple statistics that tell the ‘right’ story and making the most of the opportunities as they arise. The focus of their work on living standards has served to highlight the differences, to show how life at the bottom is radically different, and to emphasise the point, in simple terms, about what people don’t have rather than about what they need. This has resulted in a centre-right government actually implementing increases in benefit payments as part of their policy, rather than seeking to reduce them at every opportunity.

The discussion then turned to the UK with a presentation from Demi Patsios, on the development of a UK Living Standards Index (UKLSI), where the point was made that in order to understand the poor we need to understand the rich, therefore just looking at those in poverty is only a small part of the story we need to capture. The ability to understand poverty in the general context of society provides that broader picture and story, which serves to highlight the extent and levels of inequality, rather than just the hardships at one end of the spectrum and enables us to develop policies that are directed at the full spectrum of society. The UKLSI aims to measure what matters most to people under three main themes: what we have, what we do and where we live. Whilst it is much more complicated that this and brings together both objective and subjective data into 10 domains and 275 different measures, the overall concept and themes are simple to understand and highlight some important differences and issues. The Index helps us to understand ‘what we have’ by looking at essential v desirables and luxuries v wants. It looks at ‘what we do’ through political, social and community engagement and ‘where we live’ by satisfaction with our accommodation and neighbourhood. It brings together the types of measures that appear in things like the Living Wage calculations and local authority Quality of Life indicators, and it does it in a comprehensive and compelling fashion.

But what does all this add to the debate and will our politicians take any notice? How do we make this type of discussion gain traction in the UK, in the face of current media and government interest in individualising the problem and stigmatising the poor, whilst ensuring the poverty discourse is firmly focused away from the rich and powerful?

The current government’s approach, as outlined by Dave Gordon in his presentation, is to repeal the only legislation we had with real targets to reduce poverty (the Child Poverty Act) and to replace this with measures on educational attainment and workless households. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this approach can work with the recent commitment under the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” and to “reduce inequality within and among countries”.

From my own experience, as an ex-politician and someone who has worked with politicians and policy makers over many years, the key for me is making the messages simple. Yes, providing the evidence to support the simple statements, but only after you’ve sold them the message to begin with. Overcomplicating things with lots of measures and targets just serves to mask the message and hide the key points. Something that combines simple messages with supporting evidence; that illustrates disparities in living standards; and provides for micro level analysis would seem to be the right kind of approach.

This blog was first posted on Tessa’s own blog

Nudge and the state


Professor Alex Marsh, Head of the School for Policy Studies

Last week I took part in an enjoyable discussion on nudge policy as part of Thinking Futures, the annual festival of social sciences. Through a slightly mysterious process I ended up speaking in favour of nudge-type policies, while Fiona Spotswood from UWE made the case against relying on behaviour change initiatives. Fiona made a robust case. I have to say mine was a little less than compelling, in part because in reality I have quite a lot of sympathy with the critics. I find debating from a position you don’t entirely agree with more successful on some days and some topics than on others. This was not one of the better days.

Nonetheless, I find the topic of nudge, and behaviour change policy more broadly, fascinating because it raises so many issues.

Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge was published in 2008 and has subsequently generated a vast critical response. Such a response is not uncommon. But what is rarer is that it has got everyone worked up. There is barely a discipline across the social sciences and humanities that hasn’t had something to say on the matter. Thaler is an economist and Sunstein a lawyer, but the critical response has gone beyond those fields to include philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, geographers, management, marketing, public health and public policy scholars. We have also seen cognitive and behavioural scientists offering views on the issue.

The critical response has addressed nudge from a wide variety of angles. Much of literature addresses the ethics of nudge. Is it ethical for governments to seek to exploit known systematic biases in human cognition in order to assist individuals in meeting ends they would desire, if they had stopped to think about it? A whole host of questions follow: how are those ends identified and by whom? Does this constitute manipulation? Is it acceptable or unacceptable for governments to manipulate in the ‘public interest’? Is it coercion? Is this the thin end of a wedge that leads to authoritarianism or even fascism (which is part of the critical response primarily among more libertarian-inclined lawyers/economists in the US)?

Is a failure on the part of government to nudge simply allowing other (private sector) economic actors a free hand to nudge individuals in all directions, without any countervailing action to mitigate the worst effects of private nudges? Perhaps the simplest way to make that point is to consider the nudge argument that if you place healthy food more prominently near the checkout in a cafeteria, rather than the confectionary that is usually there, then it increases the likelihood that people will eat healthily. Critics object to government manipulating choices in this way. But the prior question is why is the confectionary there in the first place? It is, of course, because the manufacturers of sweets know that we are prone to temptation and impulse purchases while standing in line. They are manipulating a systematic bias in our decision-making.

Of course, the alternative response to this problem is to seek to do something about the way private actors manipulate choice in the first place, rather than surreptitiously nudging in the opposite direction. But that would require a braver government than any we have seen in recent years.

A second strand of the argument focuses on the evidence base underpinning policy proposals. How well attested are these behavioural effects? One simple criticism of the literature is that much of the original experimental data comes from studies of the decision making practices of US undergraduates. To what extent do these conclusions generalise? Behavioural economics tends to assume that generalisation is unproblematic, but that is hardly a sound starting point for policy. Under the UK Coalition government the policy debate about behaviour change has been one area where considerable prominence has been placed on the role of evidence and on policy pilots. But it is an area in which one type of evidence – that drawn from randomised controlled trials – is seen as pretty much the start and finish of the conversation.

A third strand of argument is about the efficacy of nudge. Even if we accept that there is robust evidence of systematic biases in cognition (such as the tendency to weight current consumption more heavily than future costs when making decisions) what can be done with this information? Most importantly, is it a substitute or complement to other forms of government action? Can nudge be used instead of more paternalistic regulation, for example? This is a point that governments have been rather vague on. Nudge, when it arrived on the scene, was viewed as being able to stand in for more interventionist approaches. But this position has subsequently been modified in the face of criticism. It may be possible to improve social outcomes in modest ways using nudge techniques, but it is hopelessly underpowered for addressing some of the major challenges facing society.

Finally, there is the fact that “nudge” is rather elusive. By that I mean that it doesn’t refer to a very clearly defined set of actions. Or rather it has been applied to a wide range of actions and interventions that don’t really accord very well with the original definition of a nudge offered by Thaler and Sunstein – a definition which has, itself, been heavily criticised. The Government’s Behavioural Insights Team was colloquially referred to as the “nudge unit” but it drew much more broadly on insights from social psychology and behavioural science than simply focusing on nudges of the Thaler and Sunstein variety. There are now quite a number of other approaches to behaviour change circulating. Some of them have similarly catchy labels (think, steer, budge, shove). Some of them start from very different premises to nudge itself. Some have had an impact on policy in particular fields – with much of the running being made by the debate in public health. Some of them have yet to make much of an impact on policymaking in practice. The academic discussion is a riot of theoretical innovation, with various frameworks and heuristics being proposed. Some are engaged in the hard graft of evaluation and synthesis, with the aim of being clearer regarding what works, when and how.

An outstanding question is whether as the accounts of behaviour change become more complex and nuanced they start to lose their purchase on policy – which typically wants simple messages leading to clear prescriptions. But that is simply another case of the perennial tension between research and policy.

This post was originally published on Alex’s Archives.