Poverty is a long-standing and apparently intractable problem in Wales. Around 23% of population, some 700,000 people, live on household incomes of less than 60% of the median. Poverty casts a long shadow over educational attainment, relationships, employment, health, and life expectancy to name but a few, and it is also a significant cost to the public purse. There could hardly be a more important issue on which we need evidence.
Despite an increase in data and evidence on poverty in recent years, there are still some substantial gaps, the most important of which are:
The Experience of Living in Poverty
For such an important policy area, we know astonishingly little about the experiences and views of people on low incomes. We don’t know what is important to them, what makes a difference to the quality of their lives or what they think of decisions that affect them. While there are some welcome moves afoot to ensure that the voices of people on low incomes are heard in some parts of Wales, for example the possible Poverty Truth Commission for Cardiff, they fall short of the systematic evidence we need across Wales.
The Profile of Who Lives in Poverty
We know exceptionally little about the 700,000 people on low incomes – we know very roughly their broad age group, whether they are in or out of work, their family status, their broad ethnic group, and if the household includes a disabled person, but that’s about it. It is unimaginable that a major corporation, like Coca Cola or Vodafone, would know so little about its target population, yet it seems that public bodies of all kinds are content. Stereotypes fill the vacuum left by the lack of evidence: for example the assumption in many public policies that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’ even though more than half of those on a low income are not of working age and a substantial proportion of those who are working do not do so because of severe disability or caring responsibilities. So, we need more detailed demographic information. How old are they? Where in Wales do they live? What sort of housing do they have? How long have they lived on a low income? What jobs do they do? How many hours do they work? What qualification and skills do they have? What are their motivations and constraints? How far below the poverty line are they – £1? £10? £100? And so on…
The third big gap is on evidence of ‘what works’. Many of the major reviews of evidence commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as part of its UK anti-poverty strategy could not identify effective interventions. Sometimes there was simply no evidence at all, and other times there was no evidence of any thing that made a difference. Even when there was evidence, it was not always useful, for example much dated from the relative boom years of the mid 2000s and it is not clear if the conclusions apply to austerity Britain, or the evidence relates to specific places and may not transfer well to Wales.
The evidence available also reflects to the way in which the solutions were framed at the time – so there is a fair bit of evidence on helping people into work not least because ‘work is the route out of poverty’ was the order of the day. There is, in contrast, much less on the ‘what works to reduce poverty’ through interventions in health.
In respect of poverty, the next Welsh Government faces not so much an evidence gap as an evidence chasm.
What should be done?
In the hope that a future Welsh Government does want evidence on poverty, it needs three things:
Firstly better use needs to be made of existing evidence. We need a more detailed and robust analysis of the Households Below Average Income data, to provide data below the all-Wales level for single years not rolling averages, and to understand better the composition of people on low incomes. We need useful, rapid reviews of existing evidence in a format that is accessible to policy makers – a series of NICE guides if you like.
Secondly we need to fill some of the gaps, in particular the lack of evidence on people’s experiences of living on a low income. We also need robust evaluations of Welsh Government programmes and the interventions it, and others, fund. All too often evaluation is an afterthought.
And thirdly we need to build a body of knowledge about poverty in Wales. We need to bring together researchers from across academia, the public sector and third sector to share endeavours and stop reinventing the wheel. We need to build research skills and best practice, and have a forward work programme that will be useful to all those trying to reduce poverty. We have this in other areas of policy, such as the Older People and Ageing Network (now the Centre for Ageing and Dementia Research), so why not on poverty?
Generating, sharing and acting on good quality evidence could provide the step change we need to cut poverty levels in the future.
About the author: Dr Victoria Winckler is a leading contributor to public policy in Wales, having worked in senior roles at the Welsh Local Government Association and Mid Glamorgan County Council before joining the Bevan Foundation in 2002. Victoria has a broad range of expertise, but has recently specialised in poverty, labour market and regeneration and equality issues. She writes and researches these issues extensively, comments in the media and advises government, the Assembly and other public and third sector bodies on them.