Sunday 25 August 2013

Child poverty - why solutions are so hard to find

The Observer has highlighted some truly concerning numbers about the growing child poverty in Britain today. The figures come from a report of the National Children's Bureau that tracked child poverty over the last decades. In essence, it shows that child poverty has not been declining in the UK but instead, steadily growing. This despite the enormous amount of policy attention and cash that was spent under the last Labour government. Billions of pounds were made available through tax credits for families with little palpable impact on child poverty.

Why is it so hard to reduce child poverty, let alone to eradicate it as the previous Labour government grandly announced?

For a start, there are some statistical issue with how to measure child poverty. Currently, child poverty is a relative measure which means that every household with a combined income of below 60% of the median UK household income counts as poor. Every child in such a household is then automatically categorised as growing up in poverty. This is clearly a very blunt way of measuring poverty. If everyone was a millionaire in the UK and drove two SUVs, there would still by definition be some people who fall below 60% of the median household income, no matter how well off they are.

The government recognised this and suggested recently to re-define poverty capture real poverty and its effects on children. The left leaning media uttered a howl of disapproval but it would do them good to consider the government's argument. The current way of measuring child poverty in the UK would allow the coalition government to demonstrate significant progress in reducing it, since median household income has actually decreased in the UK, hence fewer children live in the lowest income group.

This is a statistical anomalie and one that can be fixed. However the actual problem with child poverty may lie elsewhere. Effectively, children are not the object of poverty reduction programmes or policies. They cannot be since they are not recipient of state funding. Parents are. So, when we talk about child poverty and how to reduce it, we actually talk about poverty of parents and household income.

This means that any programme or re-distributive policy is not targeted at children but at their parents. It is the parents who are the determining factor that make or break poverty reduction. This makes child poverty a tricky business indeed since it assumes that any additional resources spent on children are actually consumed by them. That's usually not true. Tax credits boost the income of families, but whether or not parents then spend this money on their children is beyond government's control.

So, reducing child poverty is actually a business with many known unknowns. Re-distributive programmes aimed at reducing child poverty banks on the compliance and co-operation of parents to spend the additional family resources on their children. That often requires a fundamental shift in parental behaviour.

So, perhaps we have simply too blunt instruments for the task. It may be far more effective to target our resources at those domains over which parents have no or little influence such as schools, pre-schools and nurseries. It may be sad, but perhaps, some kids may just have to be saved from their parents.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

The Miranda saga

The airwaves are abuzz with indignation about the questioning of David Miranda, a Brazilian national, who travelled to Moscow and Berlin on behalf of the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald.

Newspaper editors and journalists across the globe are angry about his questioning by officials at Heathrow airport and the fact that some electronic equipment he carried was seized under Terrorism legislation. The hyperbole in foreign newspapers reached new heights with some journalists claiming that Miranda was 'tortured by giving him water to drink while refusing him the right to use a toilet' or that he 'was refused legal representation'.

At second glance, the story looks a bit different. It turns out that Miranda was indeed offered a lawyer but refused to have one present because he wanted his own personal lawyer. This lawyer took his time to arrive (8 hours to be exact) and so Miranda did not say anything for 8 hours during his questioning.

It also transpires now that Miranda was used as a courier by the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (who lives in Rio and is his partner) to transport illegally obtained data from Moscow to Rio.

So the nub of the issue is whether the British authorities have been acting within the law to question Miranda at Heathrow and seize some of his computer equipment (to be returned within 7 days). I think they were. More than this, I think they would have abdicated their duty to British citizens if they had not done so.

You may argue whether Section 7 of the terrorism legislation is particularly heavy handed (it is currently being reviewed) but there is no doubt in my mind that British authorities have the right to prevent the transfer of illegally obtained information about UK intelligence activities through its own airports.

Miranda's partner, the Guardian journalist Greenwald has now threatened the British authorities that he will reveal classified information as a revenge for his partner's questioning at the airport. It may be time that Guardian editor Rusbridger asks himself if Greenwald is motivated by the noble values of investigative journalism or more ulterior motifs when he submits his next piece for the Guardian.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

The West's dilemma with Robert Mugabe

There is little love lost between Robert Mugabe and the West. Most Western governments have condemned the outcome of the recent parliamentary and presidential elections in Zimbabwe, if not outright claimed electoral fraud.

But there have been some voices more recently who have quietly sought to introduce more nuanced narratives into the picture. Some of these have been the pieces in the Guardian by Know Chitiyo and  Blessing-Miles Tendi.

The main dilemma for the West is one of values and principles (as always, you may say). Here is a guy who has nearly singlehandedly ruined the economy of his country through his disastrous land reforms, enriched his family members and cronies along the way, and yet, receives most of the votes of the long suffering Zimbabwean electorate. Democracy in action, but with the wrong outcome.

But if you look more closely, the story adopts different shades of grey, rather than the deep black it assumes in the reports of many Western observers. First, there is Morgan Tsvangirai, who suffered from brutal physical attacks and has shown immense courage since 2008, yet has also made significant miscalculations along the way.

Then, there is the liberation narrative that uniquely favours the incumbent Zanu-PF party and Mugabe, who does not hesitate to exploit it ruthlessly to his and his party's advantage. And last, but not least, there is a large expatriate community, contributing enormously to the economic conditions at home. Zimbabweans now constitute the largest expatriate community of all Africans. This must have a deleterious effect on the strength of the opposition, essentially exporting dissent.

The West struggles to maintain a consistent position in this story. Its insistence on democracy and free and fair elections is simply conceptually too weak to make a difference. A democratic ballot may not yield the results that ensure a free society or a well run economy. So, perhaps there is little the West can do but to insist on compliance with basic human rights and hoping for a better future. This may sound precious little, but it may be better than meddle in Zimbabwean politics.

Sunday 4 August 2013

What's wrong with Liverpool?

As I mentioned before I moved to Liverpool in April and now live in Kirkdale (North Liverpool). Whilst this may not be the poshest place to be, people are usually (or should that be: unusually) friendly here. Yes, prostitution and drugs are a problem here and so is the occasional murder or stabbing. The biggest problem however for everyone living here seems to be that the Liverpool Council appears to be asleep on the job.

Just one example: Liverpool is very untypical for British cities in that is has broad avenues and enormous huge circle roads with wide sidewalks. Plenty of space for creating a network of segregated bike paths through the city, similar to the bike super highways in London (of all places)! You would think!

Liverpool could have plenty of this! If the council knew what a bike is!

In fact, Liverpool has not a single mile of bike path anywhere! Bikers are practically non existent and where they dare to step out on the road they are usually met with honking horns.

It doesn't stop there though. As other councils have made huge strides towards instituting recycling collections (often against a lot of understandable opposition) the Labour Council in Liverpool has not even started establishing food collections. And recycling collections themselves are still only fortnightly.

So, when is Liverpool going to arrive in the 21st century? How long can it take for a large council like Liverpool's to catch up with the rest of the country?