Poverty myths: “Child poverty is down to bad parents”
The vast majority of children live in poverty not because their parents are workshy, are drug or alcohol dependent, or can’t manage their children properly, as government rhetoric increasingly seems to suggest. They are poor because their parents don’t have an adequate income to make ends meet.
Work and worklessness:
It is wrong to say that poverty is caused by parents unwilling to work. The majority of children in poverty – 58% – have a working parent. These families are in working poverty because very often there is no alternative to low paid jobs, with few opportunities for progression. The lack of good, affordable childcare means that many families cannot afford to work more hours.
Rising unemployment means that many parents simply cannot find work. The significant increase in unemployment in recent years is the consequence of the recession and the economic downturn, not a collapse in the work ethic of parents.
The lack of jobs impacts on children. Children living in households where one or both parents aren’t working are at a significantly higher risk of poverty. Using the most recent data from 2009/10, estimates show that a family with one child in receipt of Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) received only 65% of the amount they needed to meet their basic needs.
While the impact of having a parent who misuses alcohol or drugs is very significant, the number of families with such parents is small. The most recent data available shows these families are atypical across the population: only 2.7% of families in Britain have an alcohol dependent parent, and 0.9% a drug dependent parent.
Low income parents are often blamed for ‘transmitting’ poverty to their children through bad parenting. Yet research shows that at all ages, children’s progress is still driven largely by factors such as social class, age and ethnicity. While studies agree that parental behaviour can help improve children’s attainment, this fails to explain the vast majority of differences between poorer and wealthier children.
Some have claimed that a report by Demos published in 2010 suggests otherwise. But in effect, all this did was isolate the effect of parenting on the conduct of children at 5 years old. The report showed that at this point in life, income levels were not as significant as parenting style in shaping childhood behaviour. While children from poorer homes may be emotionally more adept as a result of warmer parenting, they still encounter grave disadvantages compared to wealthier children that cannot be overcome simply by good behaviour.
In fact, parents at the bottom of the income scale lack neither concern nor ambition for their children. A 2008 DWP report showed, for example, that 50% of parents in the lowest income quintile hope their children will go to university. And a new report published this month by JRF demonstrates that young people share these aspirations. It is not parental behaviour that holds them back, but a lack of information as to how to navigate the worlds of education and work.
So rather than reduce responsibility for poverty to individual actions, we need to face the fact that poverty is substantially a result of society’s choices and government‘s policies.