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When It Comes to Tackling Poverty, One Size Fails All

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We are making progress in our understanding of poverty, but insisting on a single solution risks everyone falling through the net.

Poverty has long been equated with a low income, and solutions have focused exclusively on increasing that income - through redistribution under Labour and through employment under the coalition. The government now has plans to widen the scope of how we measure child poverty. This is a step in the right direction. The list of things that determine how well a family is doing, over and above income, is a long one; a more accurate measure should take into account factors such as the housing and the neighbourhood families live in, their physical and mental health, and their level of education.

But a measure is only as good as the use you make of it. A multi-dimensional view of poverty is wasted if the government continues to insist on a one-dimensional solution. The limitations of employment as a cure-all were shown definitively this week, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published figures revealing the true extent of in-work poverty.

The search for a single poverty panacea is doomed to failure. Around 10 million people in the UK live in poverty, and expecting them all to look the same is as unrealistic as tarring any other group of that size with the same brush. Yesterday, Demos released Poverty in Perspective, a report which combines a multi-dimensional view of poverty with recognition that the lived experience of poverty is different for different people.

After settling on 20 'indicators' of poverty - spanning health, housing, education and support networks - we looked at how these combined across a sample of some 9,000 low-income UK households. Where particular indicators grouped together, we labeled these as distinct poverty 'types'. Our analysis revealed a total of 15 types of poverty in the UK - five types of child poverty, five types of childless working age poverty, and five types of pensioner poverty. This is the first time such an analysis has been carried out. For the first time, we are able to say that a given proportion of the population faces a given combination of challenges.

The approach has far-reaching potential. For a start, we can replace worn and unhelpful stereotypes of 'scroungers' and out-of-control families with types based on evidence, tried and tested with people living on a low income - types such as the "grafters", representing nearly a third of families in poverty, of whom 90 per cent are in employment and the rest actively seeking it.

Multi-dimensional poverty requires a multi-dimensional solution. Take two more of our five child poverty groups, "full-house families" and "pressured parents". Both of these account for around a fifth of those in child poverty.

The former are large families with several children, living in poor quality and overcrowded homes in deprived neighbourhoods. They are often highly qualified, most have one adult in work, and they do not have debts, but they are very materially deprived. The priority for full house families should be provision of appropriate, affordable housing in neighbourhoods where they have better access to opportunities and are less at risk of being victims of antisocial behaviour.

Pressured parents are couples - also with several children, and also materially deprived but, unlike full house families, struggling with debt and to pay bills and heat their homes. They have low qualifications, are often unemployed, suffer from poor physical and mental health, and many have caring responsibilities. Better quality homes and neighbourhoods, while helpful, are not enough to lift this more entrenched group out of poverty. They require multi-agency support, spanning health, carer support, employment skills, debt advice and financial capability.

Neither family type is likely to gain from the standard welfare-to-work approach; most full house families are already working, while pressured parents - despite their willingness to work - need other barriers removed before they can access the labour market.

Poverty in Perspective should put the final nail in the coffin of the one-size-fits-all approach to poverty. Britain's poverty groups face diverse sets of challenges, and if solutions are to work - for all and for any - they need to reflect this.