Labour MP’s child poverty claim uses figures which aren’t comparable

26 June 2023
What was claimed

The number of children living in poverty has risen from 2.6 million in 2010 to 4.2 million now.

Our verdict

These two figures are not comparable. The 2.6 million figure refers to the number of children in relative poverty before housing costs in 2009/10, while the 4.2 million figure refers to the number of children in relative poverty after housing costs in 2021/22. Government figures show the number of children in relative poverty both before and after housing costs increased by around 300,000 between 2009/10 and 2021/22.

On 14 June Labour MP Kim Johnson tweeted that “the number of children living in poverty” had risen “from 2.6m in 2010 to 4.2m now.”

It is correct that the latest government statistics show that in 2021/22 there were 4.2 million children in relative poverty, after housing costs were taken into account. But this is not comparable with the 2.6 million figure in Ms Johnson’s tweet which refers to the number of children in relative poverty before housing costs in 2009/10.

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Mixed datasets

As we’ve written before, ‘poverty’ is tricky to define because it means different things to different people. This means that the statistics we have on poverty can vary significantly, depending on what measures the people collating the numbers have used. 

When politicians talk about poverty statistics, they’re often referring to figures published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on relative low income and absolute low income:

  • Relative low income measures the number of people in households where the income is below 60% of the national median average that year.
  • Absolute low income measures the number of people in households where the income is below 60% of the average median level in 2010/11, adjusted for inflation.

Put more simply, absolute poverty tracks whether people’s living standards at the bottom end of the scale are improving or not, using a set year as a benchmark, while relative poverty tracks inequality: how many people are falling behind compared to everyone else in any given year.

The government also splits both of these measures into “before housing costs” and “after housing costs”.

When we asked Ms Johnson what her 2.6 million figure was based on, she cited a BBC News article published in 2011, which reported that “In 2009-10, 20% of children (2.6m) lived in households classed as below the poverty line”.

Crucially, however, whereas the 4.2 million figure for 2021/22 refers to the number of children in relative poverty after housing costs, the 2.6 million figure for 2009/10 reported by the BBC refers to the number of children in relative poverty before housing costs, meaning these two figures are not comparable.

The number of children in relative poverty after housing costs in 2009/10—the comparable figure to the 4.2 million in 2021/22—was 3.9 million. Meanwhile the number of children in relative poverty before housing costs in 2021/22—the comparable figure to the 2.6 million in 2009/10—was 2.9 million.

Both sets of figures suggest the number of children in relative poverty has increased by around 300,000 since the Conservatives entered government—far fewer than the 1.6 million increase Ms Johnson’s tweet implied.

If an MP makes a false or misleading claim on social media, they should correct this quickly in a clear and transparent manner, including on the same platform where the claim was made.

Another version of the claim

Ms Johnson’s tweet included a retweeted clip of her speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions on the same day, where she said that new data showed that the “Government’s austerity measures have plunged 4.2 million children into poverty”.

Ms Johnson was referring to a report published by the End Child Poverty Coalition and the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University earlier this month, a press release for which states that the number of children in poverty increased to 4.2 million in 2021/22.

The study did not make a link between the government’s austerity policies and this increase, but did note (though without demonstrating causality) that the increase in children in poverty in 2021/22 followed the end of the £20 uplift in the weekly payment of Universal Credit provided to claimants during the pandemic.

What about absolute poverty?

In response to Ms Johnson’s comments, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that “there are, in fact, 400,000 fewer children in absolute poverty than in 2010.”

This appears to refer to the number of children in absolute poverty, after housing costs, which has decreased from 3.7 million in 2009/10 to 3.3 million in 2021/22.

The number of children in absolute poverty before housing costs has also decreased, from 2.5 million in 2009/10 to 2.2 million in 2021/22.

In a point of order raised in the House of Commons on Monday, 19 June, Ms Johnson challenged Mr Sunak’s response, claiming that “absolute poverty does not take into account the impact of inflation”. As we’ve explained above, the absolute poverty measure does adjust for inflation, but as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has noted, it assumes that inflation impacts all households equally.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies found in May 2022 that while previously households across all income groups have faced similar rates of inflation, inflation increases more recently have hit the poorest households harder, as they spend more of their total budget on gas and electricity (with energy price increases having been a key driver of inflation).

Different ways of measuring poverty

As we’ve written previously, in recent years the government has tended to use absolute poverty figures when talking about poverty, while the opposition has quoted rising trends in relative poverty. As a result, we frequently see exchanges similar to this one at PMQs, with opposing parties talking past each other by quoting two different measures.

An alternative measure of poverty has been established by the Social Metrics Commission (SMC)—an independent panel of experts formed to develop a new approach to poverty measurement. The Office for Statistics Regulation has described this new measure as “the most comprehensive measure of poverty available as it covers the depth, persistence and lived experience of poverty.”

The SMC estimates that in 2009/10 there were 4.5 million children in poverty, decreasing to 4.4 million by 2019/20. 

Figures for 2020/21 and 2021/22 based on the SMC’s metric have not been published after the project was cancelled by the government in 2022, although the DWP confirmed in March this year that it plans to resume work on developing a new experimental measure of poverty based on the Commission’s work.

Image courtesy of David Woolfall

We took a stand for good information.

After we published this fact check, we contacted Kim Johnson to request a correction regarding this claim.

Kim Johnson subsequently deleted her tweet.

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