In the run-up to Christmas, when many parents are struggling to find the money to fulfil their Santa duties, a plethora of research findings fuelling the ‘poverty versus parenting’ debate have been published. Is this dichotomy missing the point?
Frank Field, former director of the Child Poverty Action Group and Labour MP for Birkenhead since 1979, thinks focusing on supporting parenting will bring the best outcomes for children. In his Coalition Government commissioned report ‘The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor children Becoming Poor Adults’ published on Dec 3 he set out recommendations for a new strategy to meet the Government’s target of abolishing child poverty.
His argument states that raising incomes will not produce the transforming effects needed to counteract child poverty – ‘it is family background, parental education, good parenting and the opportunities for learning and development in the crucial early years that together matter more to children than money, in determining whether their potential is realised in adult life.’
Other studies, published the last week suggest that family income does have significant role to play in determining outcomes for children.
Child inequality data in 24 developed countries show that income poverty has the greatest impact on child inequality in the UK, according to UNICEF’s report card of UK progress .
Children’s progress during their first two years at school is still largely driven by their parents’ social class, according to findings from the Millennium Cohort Study .
Although the total number of children living in poverty has fallen, the number of children living in poverty in working UK households has increased to 2.1 million or 58% of the total, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion’ report .
CRFR research shows that both parenting and income make a difference for children. Life in Low Income Families shows that factors associated with poverty can add up to make it tough for families. The Growing Up in Scotland study shows that, ‘the impact of poverty appears to be evident through the association with other family disadvantages, rather than with low income per se, and the presence and accumulation of these disadvantages can have negative impacts for young children’.
Findings from the Growing Up in Scotland study (GUS) suggest that parenting is important, but cannot fully counteract the impact of low income. Researchers from the Scottish Centre for Social Research have found that activities like reading and singing with children from an early age (the ‘home learning environment’) do have an influence on children’s cognitive development and that they can moderate – though by no means eradicate the effect of socio-demographic disadvantage.
A further report from GUS which considers the impact of ‘persistent poverty’ on children suggests that ‘the effects of living in poverty are complex and not necessarily captured by indicators of low income.’
So it seems that there’s just no escaping the fact that income matters hugely, although it is not the whole story. Summed up by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian she says ‘Of course love and intellectual stimulation matter most, but the overwhelming evidence across countries and over any length of time, is that money is the most reliable predictor of a child’s fate. Measure it how you will, families on low incomes do worse.’
So it parenting or poverty more important? Well both are, and the question misses the point. It is the mix that matters.
GUS Dissemination Officer
(Note-the Scottish Government is currently seeking views to inform the development of its Child Poverty Strategy for Scotland, which will set out its plans for doing all within its powers to tackle child poverty in Scotland in line with the Child Poverty Act 2010. See ‘Tackling Child Poverty in Scotland: A Discussion Paper )
UNICEF Press Release 06/23/20
JRF Press Release 06/12/10
‘In-work child poverty highest on record’
Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) Research Findings No 5/2009 ‘The impact of children’s early activities on cognitive development.’
Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) Research Findings No 1/2010 ‘The circumstances of persistently poor children.’