Poverty statistics

This blog post complements an article published in the Journal of Social Policy. The post presents research suggesting the current method used to evaluate official poverty statistics in the global North is flawed. Specifically, the researchers claim that the current method (called the official equivalence scale) is “consistently underestimating the relative cost of children”.

First, Donald Hirsch outlines how the official equivalence scale works; by looking how much households spend on discretionary items (e.g. holidays) as a proportion of their spending overall. This information is used by analysts to compare incomes across larger and smaller families, as it is assumed that households with more income spend relatively more on discretionary than essential items.

The author points to flaws in this system; for example, that it does not take into account reliefs some individuals receive (eg free bus travel for UK pensioners). He also states that when an alternative method is used to calculate household income, called Minimum Income Standard (MIS), the official method is shown to assume that the cost of children relative to adults is a lot lower than it should be. He states that this is important because these comparisons are used to inform public policy decisions for poverty. Ultimately, the author does not call for one method to replace the other, but rather for additional research to be done into minimum costs to ensure poverty is being evaluated correctly.

Read the full article: Donald Hirsch, ‘Official poverty statistics are systematically underestimating the cost of children relative to adults’, The Social Policy Blog, 2 March 2020.

Social science and social distancing

Michael Taster considers how the work of social scientists can be used to help inform the response to the coronavirus pandemic. He starts his article by stating that “there has been a degree of backlash against the idea that social scientists might be integral to responding to Covid-19”. Taster argues that some social measures that have been put in place, such as handwashing and self-isolation, need insight from professionals who study society in normal circumstances if these measures are to be effective at reducing the spread.

The author then looks at how important learnings from social science research can be explained to policy makers and the public, but also how the social measures may impact researchers themselves. Taster calls for more social science research to be made open access (ie freely available to read), following the lead of some medical papers. He also asks how social scientists themselves can communicate their research more accessibly; for example, through social media. The article then considers the long-term effects social distancing could have on the profession and on the ability of researchers to balance caring responsibilities, teaching responsibilities and their own social research. He ends the article by questioning whether the pandemic may lead to an increased recognition of social sciences as a more respected field of study in society.

Read the full article: Michael Taster, ‘Editorial: Social science in a time of social distancing’, LSE Blog, 23 March 2020

Coronavirus and human behaviour

Jennifer Cole is a biological anthropologist. Here, she looks at the risks posed to people’s health when healthcare systems are overrun by emergencies, such as pandemics. Cole argues throughout the article that a key factor in tackling the spread of the coronavirus is the way citizens respond to real and perceived threats. Her argument is supported by the World Health Organisation, which suggests behavioural changes can reduce the spread of disease by 80%. Consequently, Cole believes that messages from political leaders explaining what changes need to be undertaken and why are especially important at this time.

The article also considers how the world has responded to previous outbreaks of this kind. Cole states that historically people have always wanted to look after their communities. Therefore, she believes the willingness to make sacrifices for others is part of human nature. She uses the examples of the Spanish Flu or the Ebola outbreak to illustrate the effectiveness of behavioural changes; for example, cancelling large gatherings and maintaining physical distances. Summing up, Cole reiterates that keeping healthcare systems strong is the best way to tackle the virus, and that can only be achieved by citizens changing their behaviour.

Read the full article: Jennifer Cole, ‘Coronavirus: why changing human behaviour is the best defence in tackling the virus’, The Conversation, 26 March 2020