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Gordon Brown must feel he’s on a hiding to nothing. Not only is the premiership tantalisingly beyond arm’s reach, but his holy grail - the elimination of child poverty - is proving ever more elusive.

This week his big idea, the tax credit system, was blamed by MPs for causing ‘deplorable’ hardship for thousands of families who are having to hand back money that has been overpaid. Meanwhile a clutch of experts from the Institute of Fiscal Studies have questioned the government’s preferred measure of poverty, pointing out that if you look at spending rather than income, much of our progress over recent years has been illusory.

A whole industry has developed in academic and policy circles to debate the most accurate way of deciding whether or not we’re poor. There are arguments about absolute and relative poverty - after all, most of the poor are not destitute - and about where a notional poverty line should be drawn. These can only get more complex.

Our spending and borrowing habits have changed beyond recognition, and it’s only right that the way we measure poverty should catch up. The Institute of Fiscal Studies points out that the correlation between those who are income poor and those who are spending poor is much lower than you might imagine: many of those on low incomes can borrow to keep going.

But maintaining an artificially high standard of living by borrowing doesn’t make you well-off. Average household debt in the UK is now around £7,800, not including mortgages, and rising, so spending now can actually increase the risk of poverty.

A true measure of poverty must take into account a household’s income, spending, assets, liabilities and access to essentials such as clothing and transport. That will inevitably be contentious, but necessary if we’re to move the debate beyond claim and counter-claim.

But most of all we need to retain a consciousness of the real impact of poverty on ordinary people. We need to hear their stories and be constantly reminded of what it really means not to have enough to live on. In the rarefied discussions of measurements and targets, those stories are at risk of being swamped by technical data; and when that happens, the impetus for action vanishes.

Julian Dobson, editor

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