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

Finance, housing and the ageing population

Alex Marsh, Professor of Public Policy at the School for Policy Studies urges a systematic, urgent, and holistic approach to thinking through issues related to housing, care, and ageingAlex Marsh

When we think about the financial aspects of housing, care and ageing it is essential to approach the issues holistically and to embed our understanding of the housing system in broader developments across a range of policy areas. These include developments in education policy affecting student debt levels, responses to changes in the labour market, pensions policy, social security policy, and broader macroeconomy policy. Earlier this year, for example, the FT reported on some ECB analysis arguing that Eurozone quantitative easing was responsible for fueling housing market bubbles in a number of countries (paywall), including the UK.

Policy in all these areas — and more — is reflected in the way in which the housing market behaves. And the way in which the housing market behaves is, in turn, reflected back into these other policy areas. Holding on to these interconnections is crucial.

Some would argue that the UK housing system is fundamentally broken. Others wouldn’t want to go quite that far. But many would agree that the system is decidedly unwell. The recent Foresight report by Michael Edwards rightly argues that we need to recognize that the problems are multidimensional and the solution therefore needs to be multi-faceted. We face acute short-term p
roblems triggered by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) layered on top of long-term problems generated by the unique combination of characteristics of UK housing market and Westminster housing policy. Continue reading

Presenting at academic conferences: embracing discomfort

Natasha Mulvihill, Andrea Matolcsi, and Catherine Briddick reflect on their experiences of academic conference presentations in the field of prostitutiongvr-slider

The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable […]. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers. (M. Scott Peck)

The academic conference is an established forum for colleagues to present early findings and to road-test theories.  Ranging from mutually affirming spaces, thronged with like-minded and well-acquainted delegates to more diverse, loosely-knit events where participants strike up haphazard groups, conferences offer different opportunities for communication and intellectual challenge.  But how far should we actively seek out academic conferences that engender some discomfort to, in Peck’s terms, nudge us out of our particular research perspectives?

In April, we attended the first international conference organised by PROSPOL (Comparing European Prostitution Policies:  Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance), a funded strand of work under the European COST Action IS1209 initiative.  Held in Vienna, delegates were asked to submit papers under the conference banner ‘Troubling prostitution: Exploring intersections of sex, intimacy and labour’.  As researchers on prostitution policy for a number of years, we submitted and each had an individual paper accepted, as well as panel proposal, co-presented with a colleague at Oxford.

The delegate list boasted many of the contemporary researchers across the world writing on prostitution and prostitution policy: and was for this reason a landmark event.  For those unfamiliar with this field of work, there is common demarcation made between researchers who understand selling sex as labour which deserves a statutory footing, with attendant rights and work to reduce harm, and researchers who understand prostitution as a reflection of patriarchy, characterised often by exploitation and abuse, and who lobby for measures to reduce demand for paid sex and support for women to exit.  While this division glosses over the significant diversity of views within and across these positions, it is palpable in its effects.  Researchers adopt terms consistent with the polar perspective (“sex work”, “prostitution”) and first encounters with other researchers can involve a few moments of careful neutrality, like poker players trying to read the other’s hand.  Differences in standpoint have at times been personal and appear increasingly to be played out beyond the academic journals and in to social media.  Institutions on name badges and delegate lists can suggest allegiances: ‘Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol’, for example, positions us as likely ‘prohibitionists’.  Broadly, the PROSPOL conference was sympathetic to the sex work perspective.

We offer three observations.  First, the discussion on prostitution and sex work can echo the story of the blind men and the elephant: researchers are often talking about different aspects of the sex industry and projecting their findings across the piece.  For example, the experience of migrants working in parlours, female street workers, single mothers working independently from home, internet workers ‘on tour’, male escorts or female sex tourists are all characterised by different individual circumstances and different relations of power.  So all researchers need to be careful about how they evidence their claims.

Second, as researchers writing from a feminist perspective, we are nevertheless interested in the interconnections between experiences of women and men across the sex industry and how these relate to gender-power relations.  We are mindful that despite some diversity in those selling sex, and despite the intersectional relations of race, economic status, migration status (or lack thereof), sexuality or disability within the prostitution encounter, the purchase of sex remains an overwhelmingly masculine practice.  This deserves further analysis.

Third, we note that prostitution as a practice rooted in patriarchy has been re-envisioned through the sex work movement and imbued with new meanings of freedom, choice, rights and transgression.  Much of the current research is exploring the tensions between this understanding of prostitution and a less sympathetic legal and political context.   However, rather than a brave new world, our concern would be that that this perspective reinforces prevailing power relations.  For example, there was discussion within one panel that gender equality within sex work would mean more equal numbers of men and women paying for sex.  Yet, this is surely the old gender politics where role equity for women has required women to move in to male constructed domains (politics, the workplace, front-line combat etc.) but rarely requires role change for men, or a significant challenge to the rationale, operation or normative status of those domains.

Despite our different viewpoints, we learnt a great deal from the breadth of research presented.  We got to meet the people behind the printed word and exchanged stories of how we found ourselves researching this difficult area.  We had common experiences on methods, on ethics, and on working with other organisations such as the police and health services and indeed with the women and men selling sex.  There was universal agreement that these individuals should not be criminalised.

So while our experience at the conference was at times taxing, we came away from Vienna with new knowledge, new friendships and the recognition that a little discomfort can be a good thing.

Authors                                                                              

Dr Natasha Mulvihill is a Research Associate and teacher at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Gender and Violence Research.

Andrea Matolcsi is a third-year PhD student at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Gender and Violence Research. Her participation in this conference was fully supported by the University of Bristol Alumni Foundation.

Catherine Briddick is studying for a DPhil in Law at the University of Oxford where she teaches international law and the protection of refugees, migrants and displaced persons.

Social housing futures

Alex MarshIn an essay published for the Chartered Institute of Housing, Alex Marsh, Professor of Public Policy and Head of the School for Policy Studies, speculates on social housing futures 

The housing problems facing the UK are multifaceted. They include the failure to build sufficient new dwellings to keep pace with population growth; significant market volatility; problems of affordability for both owners and renters; and problems of insecurity in the private rented sector.

The Coalition government has been quite strong on rhetoric and has announced a succession of new policies and initiatives. In the social housing sector these have included changes to subsidy, tenancy security, regulation, and rent levels. The Coalition has had rather less success in bringing affordable, secure accommodation within reach of a greater proportion of households. Indeed, housing circumstances have become more precarious for many.

In the run up to the General Election, the Chartered Institute of Housing has published a series of policy essays looking at various aspects of the housing challenge and the policy responses not only in housing, but also in related areas such as welfare reform.

In the most recent essay in the series I have provided a perspective on the future of social housing, focusing on housing associations in England. The essay covers four broad areas: the squeeze; looking beyond housing; narratives; and marginal voices.

None of the political parties with a chance of power are proposing a significant departure from the current policy trajectory. So, barring some major unforeseen event, we are going to see the continued squeeze of austerity. The result will be many housing associations continuing to move towards higher levels of borrowing to fund development and higher rents to service their loans. This is going to challenge housing associations in reconciling the commercial imperatives they face with their social purpose. This challenge is not new, but it will be felt more urgently. It is not easy to predict how this tension will play out. But as I state in the essay, in my view commercialisation will eventually triumph: “financialisation has an insidious, transformative power”.

The squeeze is not just affecting housing organisations. The organisations they work with – local authorities and the health service in particular – are facing similarly tough times. And the public spending cuts planned after May 2015 are going to be more painful. Gaps in services will open up. This will present housing associations with opportunities to demonstrate greater place-based leadership. We will find out quite quickly whether associations are minded to take up these opportunities.

There is much talk in the housing association sector about the increased risks associated with current policy directions. Much of this talk has focused on development and private finance. I would argue that reputational risk is a broader issue and enters the picture earlier. There are risks to housing benefit-dependent households in the face of an increasingly inadequate social security system. But there are risks associated with succumbing to the increasing pressure to house relatively better-off households at higher rents and use the revenues generated to cross-subsidize genuinely affordable social housing. Similarly, there are risks associated with efficient asset management which has the potential to transform neighbourhoods and increase social segregation.

A key part of how these risks is managed should be greater attention to narratives – are social housing organisations doing enough to explain what they are doing and the constraints within which they operate?

The political economy of housing policy is driven by the interests of older owner occupied households because they are the households that are more likely to vote. However, we can see that this political economy is changing. The rise of Generation Rent, the activities of the Radical Housing Network or the Focus E15 protesters all indicate that new voices are being heard in housing policy making. Some of those voices are making claims using concepts such as the Right to the City, which represent a profound challenge to the logic of mainstream policy approaches.

The volume and influence of such marginal voices is likely to increase in the coming years. Eventually the political system is likely to be compelled to take them more seriously and to take more decisive policy action addressing the concerns of renters and those excluded from the housing market.

The social housing system is facing profound challenges and housing organisations will need to innovate to survive and succeed. While the constraints on the system are real, it would be a mistake to treat them as binding. The future is not given. It is made. And if we are to secure the broadest possible social benefit from innovation then learning and effective practice needs to be shared as widely as possible.

You can read the full essay here.