Excuses for Inequality

Laura Jones

The National Foundation for Educational Research, analysing the data in a Tellus Survey carried out in autumn 2009, last month drew some conclusions about what makes it more or less likely that a child will be happy – or say that she’s happy, which isn’t quite the same thing. The government decided in June to stop running the national survey (it’s an unnecessary drain on local authorities’ resources, they say), but the NFER analysis may have made them think twice about that, as one of the apparent findings is that poverty does not affect happiness.

The NFER, admitting that this is surprising, explains that no significant association was found between poverty and happiness once other influences had been taken into account. It doesn’t say, however, if it considered the association between poverty and those other influences – which include worrying about parents, worrying about money, being a victim of crime, and whether or not the family sits down to eat a meal together.

It looks as if policy-making may increasingly be justified by this sort of analysis. David Cameron has asked the Office of National Statistics to find a new way to measure ‘wellbeing’ in Britain – so that we measure progress not by ‘how well the economy is doing’ (or how many children are living in poverty) but by how happy we are (or say we are). He can then justify making the poorest families even poorer. The government may be scrapping the education maintenance allowance, child trust funds and the health in pregnancy grant; freezing child benefit (for those that still receive it); changing tax credits (removing some elements, cutting or freezing others);cutting housing benefit; and making it harder to get emergency grants for families in crisis – but let’s not worry about any of that because happiness doesn’t result from living above the poverty line anyway.

Child Poverty Action Group has calculated that a baby born to a low-income family after April 2011 will be around £1500 worse off compared to a sibling born in April 2010, and that a couple with children, one working 20 hours a week on minimum wage and the other on contributory employment and support allowance, could lose £168.31 a week. And those families won’t be less happy? We’ll see about that.


  • 7 January 2011 at 6:50pm
    Oliver Rivers says:
    As you imply, the survey seems more notable for what it didn't look at. In particular, I'd want to check whether there wasn't a correlation between, say, sitting down to eat together, or being able to talk to parents, and family income level.

    Other aspects of the survey design raise concerns. The question "I feel happy about life at the moment" is open to more than one interpretation by survey participants--how many interpreted that to mean "right now", how many as "in general"?

    The question of the relationship between happiness and poverty was only addressed by asking the children whether or not they were eligible for free school meals. That's a purely binary measure; it wouldn't capture, for example, whether happiness increases with income level.

    To be able to say with confidence that there is no correlation there you'd want to be able to show no increase in the probability of saying "yes, I'm happy" as income goes up. There's nothing here that enables the researches to say that, so the claim that there is no correlation between income and happiness is spurious.

    There's also an implicit assumptions that the children both knew whether or not they're eligible, and gave truthful answers to the question. I'd be curious to know whether any tests were done on either of those points.

    I'd mark this down as "raises more questions than it answers." As a piece of field research it seems pretty shoddy, frankly.

    • 8 January 2011 at 2:07pm
      Oliver Rivers says: @ Oliver Rivers
      Although in fairness I realise the researchers were only looking for a relationship between poverty and happiness, not income level and happiness.

  • 9 January 2011 at 10:28am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Who defined 'happiness'? Seems to be pretty ephemeral if you look at your life 'right now' - if that's the add-on, as opposed to 'in general' or 'always'. As Ms Jones says, it seems as if the government is looking for ways to justify more cuts and more austerity for the poor, while they dream up new ways to say 'poor but happy' - how about 'financially challenged but emotionally up there.'?

  • 10 January 2011 at 3:16pm
    blue bayou says:
    Surely the key is whether you can be "happy" while in poverty having once known wealth.

    Diddy Dave and his cohorts can now be content that those who have only known poverty can be left there in a state of "blissful ignorance".

    What I fear is the follow-up research demonstrating that real "unhappiness" comes from a reduction in circumstances from a level of relative wealth.

    This would prove that any serious attempt at redistributing income or "improving" the condition of the "poor" (above the minimum to level to ensure male conscription into the armed forces can be successfully achieved when required), is against the greater good as it would spread "unhappiness" by taking much needed resource from the better off as they struggle to remain "happy".

    Indeed the thrust of policy would need to be directed at keeping those who require wealth in order to remain "happy" in that position, particularly in the event of inflation corroding their assets.