Written evidence from the Social Metrics Commission (CPM0010)



The Social Metrics Commission was formed in 2016 and is led by the Legatum Institute’s CEO, Baroness Stroud. It is an independent and rigorously non-partisan organisation dedicated to helping policymakers and the public understand and take action to tackle poverty. Since its inception, its ultimate goal has been to develop new poverty metrics for the UK which have both long-term political support and effectively identify those who are in poverty. By doing so, it is hoped that Government and others will be better able to develop interventions that reduce the number of people experiencing poverty and improve outcomes for those people who do experience it. The Legatum Institute hosts the Commission and is the lead sponsor. The Commission has also been generously supported by:

        The Legatum Foundation;

        Joseph Rowntree Foundation;

        Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch);

        Garfield Weston Foundation;

        Oliver Wyman;

        Jon Moulton; and

        Stuart Roden.



Question 1: How should child poverty be measured and defined?

Question 2: The measures of child poverty changed in 2016. What has the impact of those changes been?

[Note: question 1 and 2 considered together]

The Commission is extremely supportive of the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s focus on issues around poverty measurement and definition. Measuring poverty, whether that be amongst children or adults, is essential if action is going to be taken to improve the lives of those currently living in, or at risk of falling into, poverty. It is also essential to ensuring that those individuals, families, communities and areas of the UK that have historically been left behind are supported to improve their situation. As the full extent of economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic unfold, measuring poverty will also be central to ensuring that these long-term impacts are tackled.

To that end, with existing data and research, the Commission believe that the approach it has developed represents the most accurate measure of poverty (including for children), which is also most likely to build consensus and drive action on poverty. To understand why, we provide an overview of the Commission’s work and poverty measurement framework. More detail can be found in our annual reports.[1]

The context for the Commission’s work is that the last two decades have seen a heated and politically charged debate over how, as a country, we should measure poverty. This had led to a situation where:

1)      Our collective efforts have focussed too much on discussion about how to measure poverty and too little on tackling the issue that we all see in front of us each day; and

2)      Since 2016, the UK has not had official measures of poverty for children or adults.

This situation is severely detrimental to the lives and opportunities of people right across the UK. Without a robust and widely accepted measure of poverty, we cannot hope to track, monitor and report progress on attempts to tackle poverty. In turn, it will be impossible to develop a comprehensive strategy, based on evidence, to reduce the incidence of poverty and improve the lives of those who do experience poverty.

That is exactly why the Social Metrics Commission was formed in 2016. The Commission’s objective has been to develop measures of poverty that are robust and gain support from across and outside of the political spectrum.

The Commission published its first report in September 2018.[2] This articulated how the approach to poverty measurement could be improved in the UK and elsewhere. The Commission’s measure included improvements in two key areas:

1. Identifying those least able to make ends meet. The Commission’s measure:

        Accounted for all material resources, not just incomes. For instance, this meant including an assessment of the available liquid assets (e.g. cash savings) that families have;

        Accounted for the inescapable costs that some families face, which make them more likely than others to experience poverty. These include the extra costs of disability, costs of childcare and rental and mortgage costs; and

        Broadened the approach of poverty measurement to include an assessment of overcrowding in housing and those sleeping rough.

2. Providing a better understanding of the nature of poverty, by presenting detailed analysis of:

        The depth of poverty: To assess how far above / below the poverty line families are. This builds an understanding of the scale of the task that families face in moving out of poverty and how close others (above the poverty line) are to falling into poverty;

        The persistence of poverty: To assess how long families in poverty have been in poverty for, so that the escalating impact of poverty over time can be considered and tackled; and

        The Lived Experience of those in poverty: To assess a range of factors and characteristics that impact on a family’s experience of poverty, make it more likely for them to be trapped in poverty and / or are likely predicators of their poverty experience.

This forms the basis of the Commission’s measurement framework, which is presented in figure 1.

Figure 1: Social Metrics Commission’s measurement framework


Within this framework, the experiences of different groups can be explored. For example, the Commission’s annual report presents data on children, working-age adults and pension-age adults in poverty. It also provides detailed breakdowns of each of these groups by family type, age, working status, housing tenure, location and ethnicity. These can all be found in detailed results tables.[3]

Whilst results are presented separately for children, working-age adults and pension-age adults, the Commission’s headline results focus on the experience of families. This is because it is impossible to consider an individual’s experience of poverty without understanding the situation of the whole family within which they are present. In this respect, the Commission highlights the number and proportion of children who live in families that are in poverty. These headline results are demonstrated in figure 2.

Figure 2: Composition of poverty and poverty rates in the UK, by age, 2018/19

Notes: Figures have been rounded, so may not sum perfectly.

Source: Family Resources Survey and HBAI dataset (2018/19), SMC analysis


Since its 2018 report, the Commission has continued to build support for its approach to poverty measurement. We warmly welcomed the Work and Pension’s Select Committee’s previous report, which recommended that the Government adopt the Commission’s approach as its “…official, central measure of poverty”.[4]

We also applauded the Government for its commitment to develop an experimental statistic based on the Commission’s measurement framework. As highlighted by the Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance at the time:

“Tackling poverty is a priority for this government. We welcome the work the Social Metrics Commission has done to find new ways to understand the lives and experiences of those who are in poverty… the Social Metrics Commission makes a compelling case for why we should also look at poverty more broadly to give a more detailed picture of who is poor, their experience of poverty and their future chances of remaining in, or entering, poverty. We look forward to exploring the merits of developing a new measure with them and other experts in this field. In the long run this could help us target support more effectively.”[5]

Since the Government’s announcement in 2019, we have continued to support the Department for Work and Pensions’ work to develop the Experimental Statistics and stand ready to continue to do so and take this work forward in earnest as the country emerges from the pandemic.

The Commission continues to believe that the framework it has developed provides the most comprehensive, robust and accurate measure of poverty amongst children and adults living in the UK.

Question 3: What were the advantages and disadvantages of having a set of targets for reducing child poverty?

While the Commission has not taken a view on the efficacy of targets for reducing poverty amongst children (or indeed, adults), there are clear advantages of targets in terms of accountability of policymakers in delivering reductions in poverty. Targets can be used to agree and announce ambitions for reductions in poverty (amongst different populations) and this allows external groups to better hold the Government to account. Targets can also provide a useful focus for policymakers and politicians. Whilst targets overall have merit, legislating for targets presents practical, political and policy challenges that make this an unhelpful step.

If targets were to be reinstated, there are also inferences that can be drawn from the Commission’s work on how those could be developed:

1)      Focussing on child poverty would seem too narrow a view. Of course, the outcomes of poverty are significant for children, but they cannot be viewed in isolation. The Commission’s early work demonstrated that current experiences of poverty are strongly correlated with previous experiences of poverty (in terms of incidence, depth and persistence). As such, adults’ experiences of poverty prior to forming a family are likely to have significant implications for the experience of poverty they have as a family with children. This suggests that, even where the focus of interest is on children in poverty, national measurement and any targets should focus on broader measures of poverty including adults without children. In this respect, the Sustainable Development Goals’ ambition of tackling poverty “in all its forms” is very much the right approach.

2)      The logical extension of this is ensuring that measurement and any targets are focussed on a clear and comprehensive measurement framework. This is because, policymakers’ minds are likely to be focussed on meeting any targets set, so narrowly drawn targets risk focussing on one element of a larger problem. That is why the Commission has set out a comprehensive poverty measurement framework, including poverty, depth of poverty, persistence of poverty and Lived Experience Indicators. An effective anti-poverty strategy would target improvements in each of these areas, and by including them in the framework, the Commission’s approach provides the Government with the information it needs to develop a wide range of policy levers to tackle poverty. As such, if any targets were to be developed, they should place a clear emphasis on improvements across each part of the Commission’s measurement framework.

Question 4: What has been the effect of removing from law the targets in place between 2010 and 2016?

As highlighted above, whilst legislated targets are problematic, targets can be useful in focusing minds on tackling the issue and providing a route through which Government can be held to account. As such, there is little surprise that the loss of targets from 2016 has led to a reduced focus on tackling poverty.

Question 5: What is the impact of child poverty and how can it best be measured?

Question 6: What links can be established for children between financial hardship, educational under-achievement, family breakdown and worklessness?

[Note: question 5 and 6 considered together]

The impacts of children experiencing poverty are significant and varied and there are links between a wide range of different outcomes both in childhood and later life. The Commission’s measurement framework provides a systematic framework through which these issues can be considered, and a wide range of research questions answered. For example, creating a framework through which poverty, poverty depth, poverty persistence and Lived Experience Indicators allows us to simultaneously understand and track outcomes across all of these issues for children in families of different characteristics and locations and with different experiences. Given the new nature of the Commission’s measurement framework, the research needed to unpick all of the findings and implications is significant and we would encourage researchers and commissioners of research to invest in undertaking this essential work.

Our work to date has already shown the very strong links between poverty, poverty depth, poverty persistence and Lived Experience Indicators. It has also shown that the experience of each of these factors of poverty is varied for different families.

The Commission’s reports in 2019 and 2020 demonstrated a number of the ways in which this could be considered.[6] For example, the 2019 report showed that poverty depth and poverty persistence are closely related. The results are shown in table 1, which demonstrates that the likelihood of families in poverty also being in persistent poverty increases with the depth of poverty that they experience. For example, 41% of children living in families in relatively shallow poverty (within 5% of the poverty line) are in persistent poverty. This compares to more than six in ten (64%) of those children living in families in deep poverty (50% or more below the poverty line).

Table 1: Persistent poverty for people living in families at different depths of poverty, 2016/17

Source: Understanding Society (2009/10 – 2016/17), SMC analysis

The report also demonstrated the linkages between the Commission’s measure of persistent poverty and its Lived Experience Indicators. This demonstrated significant differences between the experience of poverty for people in persistent poverty. For example, compared to those in non-persistent poverty, those in persistent poverty are:

        Four percentage points more likely to live in a lone-parent family and four percentage points more likely to be a single adult;

        Ten percentage points more likely to live in a workless family;

        More likely to report poor physical and mental ill health and low health satisfaction; and

        50% more likely to live in a family that is behind in paying the bills.

More detail can be found in table 2.

Table 2: Lived Experience Indicators by experience of persistent poverty

Source: Understanding Society (2014/15–2016/17), SMC Analysis.

Notes: Lived Experience Indicators were selected based on data availability and the themes that the Commission wanted to capture as important to fully understanding lived experience. Estimates denote percentage, unless otherwise specified in the variable description.

The Commission’s 2020 report used these findings to demonstrate that the nature and experiences of different groups in poverty was extremely varied. It used this finding as motivation to split the UK population into segments based on their experience of poverty depth and persistence (figure 3).[7] It shows that 4% of the UK population (or 2.3 million people) are living in deep and persistent poverty.

Figure 3: UK population by poverty status, 2017/18

Notes: Estimates of the proportions of those in each type of poverty were taken from Understanding Society and calibrated against the SMC’s headline estimates produced using the 2017/18 FRS/HBAI data.

Source: Understanding Society (2012/13 – 2017/18) and Family Resources Survey and HBAI dataset (2017/18), SMC analysis.


Figure 4 shows how this looks for different families. It shows that one in five (20%) families with children that are in poverty are in deep and persistent poverty and another 16% are in deep and non-persistent poverty.

Figure 4: Type of poverty for children and adults in families, working-age adults without children, and pension-age adults without children

Notes: Categories have been allocated according to whether there is a child present in the sharing unit.

Source: Understanding Society (2012/13 – 2017/18), SMC analysis.


The Commission’s report into Covid-19 used this framework to understand how the pandemic was impacting on children and adults in these different poverty situations.[8] For example, figure 5 shows how the labour market impacts of the pandemic were closely related to poverty depth. Nearly two thirds of those in work prior to the pandemic who were more than 50% below the poverty line experienced a negative labour market impact (to be furloughed and / or to have seen their hours or wages cut) between March and May 2020. This compares to just 35% of those who are more than 20% above the poverty line.

Figure 5: Employment and pay impacts for those employed prior to the Covid-19 crisis, by poverty status

Source: YouGov, SMC analysis.

Notes: Due to data constraints, the analysis uses 60% of median equivalised household (before housing costs) income as the poverty line. 'Some negative impact' refers to those who have had their hours or earnings reduced and / or been furloughed or lost their job. Base: all employed prior to Covid-19 crisis (39,621 across all categories).

The report also looked more broadly at the impacts of the pandemic and the situation that people in poverty found themselves prior to the pandemic. For example, figure 6 shows both that people in deep poverty were more likely to feel lonely prior to the pandemic (one in five (22%) people in deep poverty said they were lonely prior to the pandemic, compared to one in ten (12%) of those more than 20% above the poverty line) and that all groups saw a similar rise in loneliness during the early stages of the pandemic. Overall, this meant that more than half (55%) of people in deep poverty reported to be lonely between March and May 2020.

Figure 6: Experience of loneliness and the impact of the pandemic, by poverty status

Source: YouGov, SMC analysis.

Notes: Due to data constraints, the analysis uses 60% of median equivalised household (before housing costs) income as the poverty line. Base: all respondents (77,668 across all categories).


Overall, what the results from the Commission’s reports over the last three years show is that, by considering these issues through a comprehensive single measurement framework, a fuller understanding can be gained of families in poverty, the range of challenges they face and the opportunities there are to support them out of poverty. As such, the key is to adopt a measurement framework that allows for the simultaneous consideration of all of these issues.

Joint working

Question 1: How effectively does the Department for Work and Pensions work with other Government departments, particularly the Department for Education and the Treasury, to reduce child poverty?

Question 2: How effectively does the Department for Work and Pensions work with local authorities and with support organisations to reduce the numbers of children living in poverty and to mitigate the impact of poverty on children?

Question 3: What would be the merits of having a cross-government child poverty strategy? How well has this worked in the past?

[Note: questions 1 – 3 considered together]

The Commission is strongly supportive of the development of a cross-Government anti-poverty strategy. We believe that this should be broadly drawn, including adults as well as children as poverty is best considered through the lens of families, rather than specifically children. There are a number of reasons for this including that, as highlighted above, the experiences of poverty amongst childless adults are likely to persist through to their experiences of poverty if they later have children. As such, tackling poverty in all of its forms is likely to be the best defence against poverty amongst children.

The fist step to developing a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy is to have a poverty measurement framework that allows for consideration of poverty in all of its forms. The Commission believes that its approach provides a comprehensive measurement framework through which an anti-poverty strategy can be developed and the success of this strategy (and components of it) monitored and tracked.

Perhaps most importantly, the framework provides the tools through which cross-Government working can be facilitated. This is because it provides Government with a range of levers through which it can seek to tackle (and be rewarded for tackling through movements in the metric) poverty. For example, within the measure:

        Attempts to increase financial resilience through access to rainy-day savings or reduce the costs of childcare and the extra costs of disability, could feed directly through into reductions in poverty or the depth / persistence of poverty; and

        Policy focussed on boosting education and skills, improving community and family life, improving mental and physical health or tackling problem debt would lead directly through into measures of Lived Experience Indicators.

This means that departments including Health and Social Care, MHCLG and DCMS would all have a clear role in tackling poverty, which has not existed before. This is also in stark contrast to other measures of poverty. By focussing purely on incomes, these mean that co-working beyond DWP and HM-Treasury is not supported because policy levers of other departments will not meaningfully impact on the current measure of poverty.


February 21

[1] https://socialmetricscommission.org.uk/category/publications/ Accessed 23/02/21.

[2] https://socialmetricscommission.org.uk/social-metrics-commission-2018-report/ Accessed 23/02/21

[3] https://socialmetricscommission.org.uk/social-metrics-commission-2020-results-tables/ Accessed 23/02/21.

[4] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmworpen/1539/153905.htm#_idTextAnchor010 Accessed 23/020/21.

[5] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-poverty-statistics-developed-to-helpgovernment-target-support  Accessed 23/02/21.

[6] Social Metrics Commission, (2019). Measuring Poverty 2019. ­Available here: https://socialmetricscommission.org.uk/social-metrics-commission-2019-report/ Accessed 23/02/21.

[7] Social Metrics Commission, (2020). Measuring Poverty 2020. ­Available here: https://socialmetricscommission.org.uk/measuring-poverty-2020/ Accessed 23/02/21.

[8] Social Metrics Commission, (2020). Poverty and Covid-19. Available here: https://socialmetricscommission.org.uk/poverty-and-covid-2/ Accessed 23/02/21.