What links pasta, official statistics and the late, great, Terry Pratchett? A debate over inflation, that’s what.  

When the UK’s latest inflation figures from December 2021 were recently published, the phenomenal anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe made the very valid point that official inflation figures in the UK are actually an average rate for the population. Inflation for the poorest people is very different—and higher. 

Monroe laid out the stark reality hidden by the headline figure of a 5% increase in the cost of living in the UK, in a Twitter thread demonstrating the real price rises for people on minimum wages, zero hour contracts, food bank clients, and millions more.

The point Monroe was making is that food prices have risen much faster than prices for other goods. And, for poor households around the world, food tends to account for a bigger proportion of a smaller household budget. In the UK, the average household spends about 11% of their income on food. But if you are poor—in the bottom 20%—then that rises to nearly 15%.  In South Africa, the poorest households spend more than a third of their income on food. So, food price rises will hit harder. In other words, your rate of inflation, if you’re poor, will be higher than the average—higher, for the very people who can least afford it.

Monroe called for a new index of inflation that measured the rapidly rising costs faced by poor households in the UK. She suggested it be called the ‘Vimes Boots’ index, in tribute to the brilliant description of how expensive it is to be poor from the character Sam Vimes, in Terry Pratchett’s novel ‘Men at Arms’:

“A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.”

The UK’s Office for National Statistics know a good argument when they hear one, and responded on how they are evolving their approach to measuring the cost of living. They are using technology to gather a far greater range of prices, directly from supermarket checkouts. That means they can compare the prices of, say, branded and own-brand products. They are also working hard to understand in much more detail what different groups of people actually spend their money on, to better understand how price changes for different products affect different groups. 

It’s now over to the UK government to use that information to inform decisions about changes to state benefits and pensions—that’s why they collect the data in the first place. 

The lesson we can all take from this story is that directly inserting the real experiences of people who face poverty, or illness, or discrimination, into the data collection process leads to better statistics. 

Many official statisticians worldwide are doing an amazing job of explaining to the public what they do and why it matters. Many are also deeply committed to making their statistics relevant to people’s lives, and innovating with ways to do that. It would be great if it became the norm to involve people directly by setting up consultations with communities to explain what the statistics say and check it against their lives, as we've seen in Senegal. Or to consult in advance on how data is collected: as in Colombia where the development of new statistical guidelines involved anthropologists, journalists, civil society groups and the general public. 

Statistics, contrary to popular belief, aren’t lies. But they are a simplified version of the truth, and what is kept in, and what is left out, is decided by people with a particular view of the world and with their own biases and assumptions.   

It’s vital that those charged with producing official statistics, which inform the actions of the most powerful, actively seek out the perspectives and views of those with the least power. Data is powerful and should be used to hold power to account. Jack Monroe shows us how that can be done.