Changing the story on child poverty

Policymakers need to understand poor people are not to blame for their own deprivation

Gill Main

Development, Government and governance, Social policy | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

6 December 2018

Evidence has shown for a long time that the best way out of poverty is to increase incomes and access to resources. So why hasn’t policy responded? Gill Main writes about a ground-breaking study from the UK that aims to help policymakers hear the real story.

A vast body of research shows us that child poverty has devastating effects – on children, on families, and on societies. Researching poverty imbues us with an ethical responsibility to contribute to its reduction and ultimately its elimination.

But in the face of powerful structural forces which perpetuate the status quo, this task can feel overwhelming. The scale of change that is needed to eliminate poverty is beyond the scope of any individual. This raises the question of how research evidence can be used to effect real-world change.

The Fair Shares and Families research project was conceived in an atmosphere of increasingly hostile policy and rhetoric towards those in poverty in the UK – much of it similar to narratives seen in Australia.

These narratives suggest families in poverty are responsible for their own situation – and specifically that they think, act and are motivated differently to those in more privileged situations.

The assumption from these narratives is that to address poverty, we must change the individuals who are poor. The purpose of the research was, therefore, to examine how children and families from across the socio-economic spectrum went about obtaining, negotiating, and sharing resources.

The work drew on in-depth qualitative research with eight families, as well as a three-wave representative survey of 1,000 parent-child pairs in England (with the children aged 10-17). The goal was to identify what – if any – differences there are in how families go about their use of resources according to their socio-economic status.

As well as generating academic evidence, we aimed to identify some practical actions which we can take as individuals, practitioners, and political actors.

More on this: What if poverty is a choice?

The key findings from the project pose a robust challenge to current policy. We identified a strong message of similarity between families across the socio-economic spectrum in our qualitative data – in how they thought, spoke about and shared their resources; in their hopes and dreams; in the support parents wanted to provide for their children; and in the multiple diverse interests pursued by children to enable them to enjoy childhood and to prepare them for a fulfilling adult life.

Despite determined efforts to find any evidence to the contrary, across both our qualitative and quantitative data the message was clear and powerful: the difference between poorer and better-off families was in the resources they had access to, not in their motivations or actions.

The key implication of this finding echoes a large body of previous research: the best way to address poverty is to increase the incomes and resources available to poor families.

This is not new, yet policymakers remain stubbornly deaf to the message. We, therefore, tried to identify how we can still work to address poverty in a context within which evidence does not appear to be persuasive to dominant policy and media actors.

Changing the story

Poverty – and concepts which are closely associated in the public consciousness like ‘worklessness’ and ‘benefits claimants’ – is a popular topic of conversation. While our day-to-day interactions about poverty may not mention it by name, there are many ways that the notion of poverty is invoked, and these often draw on the long-standing but inaccurate narratives of difference.

This was true among our participating families. One mother bemoaned the fact that other families who she assumed to be on benefits owned a TV, while another family discussed how some children may have fewer opportunities because their parents might be out of work and spending their money on drugs rather than on their children.

We can all take action to change how we think and speak about poverty, and to challenge such negative and inaccurate stereotypes when we hear them or see them in print.

Changing practice

Practitioners working with children and families – teachers, youth workers, social workers, charity workers, and many more – can contribute to mediating the effects of poverty.

Even where there is no overt link between the practitioner’s role and addressing poverty, the issue will still present itself. In our research, we heard families talk about schools with a ‘bring your own device’ policy – and about how children in families who could not afford to buy them a tablet were excluded from formal and informal educational and social experiences as a direct result of this policy.

More on this: The Sustainable Development Goals have put Australia’s policymakers on notice

We also heard about children having to make do with their better-off friends’ cast-off craft materials so that they could engage with their hobbies and take part in the activities of their friendship groups.

We even heard about children who were excluded because there was simply no way to find the money to travel to and participate in the activities enjoyed by their peers – and about children who were provided with the financial support needed to engage but in the process were identified as ‘poor’ and therefore made to feel ashamed and different.

Practitioners can help by ‘poverty-proofing’ activities so that no child is either excluded because of their family’s income, or identified as ‘different’ by the mechanisms intended to ensure their inclusion. What we need is a rights-based approach, based on advocating for better provision, breaking down the stigma that surrounds claiming social entitlements, and helping families to claim the resources to which they are entitled.

Changing policy

The ultimate goal remains to change policy. Through changing the story we can contribute to developing more accurate and empathetic narratives around poverty. Through changing practice we can create an environment that is inclusive of those in poverty.

These actions ultimately have the potential to help eliminate poverty by softening public attitudes and ensuring that policymakers have no option but to respond to the evidence, and not just listen to negative narratives.

 

You can read the Fair Shares and Families Research Project Report here: https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/resources-and-publications/fair-shares-and-families-report

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