Child poverty: where are the children?
Professor Jonathan Bradshaw FBA, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, University of York
Child poverty in the UK is increasing and on present policies will increase further, sweeping away all the reduction achieved up to 2010. This is happening, despite unemployment being at a record low and real wages at the bottom of the distribution improving. Since 2010, £40 billion has been taken out of the working age social security budget, and the main driver of child poverty are these cuts to benefits and services.
Poverty affects child outcomes. Infant mortality increased in the last two years for the first time since 1984, child homelessness is rising rapidly, so are the numbers of children in care, and both child mental health and child subjective well-being are falling.
In this context, understanding child poverty should be a priority but the voices of children are missing. It is not just the voices that are missing, it is their whole presence and experience. We are failing to recognise them and their agency in poverty studies.
Since the 19th century, poverty has always been understood as a lack of resources — mainly income, but household income alone has many weaknesses as an indicator of child poverty: the thresholds and the equivalence scales used to adjust income to household size are arbitrary and there are problems with the under-reporting of benefit income. This is partly why Peter Townsend pioneered the use of a deprivation measure, based on the number of items and activities that households lacked. That approach has been extended to items and activities more relevant to children — in three Poverty and Social Exclusion surveys and adopted into the official Households below average income survey measures and by Eurostat in the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (SILC). But the judgements about whether they are necessities and whether children lack them are still made by adults.
There are surveys of children. Understanding Society, formerly the British Household Panel Survey, has a youth questionnaire completed by 10–15 year olds, which has been used to assess child well-being, but not yet child poverty and deprivation. The World Health Organisation-sponsored Health Behaviour of School Aged Children is undertaken every four years in many countries and is based on a school-based survey of 11, 13 and 15 year olds and has contributed to comparative studies of child well-being, as has the OECD PISA survey of 15 year olds every three years, but neither really focuses on poverty and deprivation.
Why should we want to ask children about their material well-being and why cannot we rely on parents’ reports? Children have rights. We are enjoined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to listen to children and take their views into account. The UN Sustainable Development Goals, accepted by the UK, have clear targets for child poverty reduction. Certainly, since Ridge’s pioneering study talking to children about poverty, we know that children are sensitive to their comparative material status, ashamed of what they do not have, feel deprived if they cannot invite their friends round or participate in leisure or school activities and, most critical of all, they do their level best to hide these feelings from their parents and to not ask for things that they know their parents cannot afford. Children living in low income and deprived families were much more likely to report economising, including hiding needs from parents. Further, we know from the studies that have interviewed both children and their parents about their perceptions of necessities, that they assess assets and activities slightly differently.
In the studies that have covered both parents’ and children’s perceptions of poverty, there is a large group where the perceptions coincide — either both children and parents agree that they are poor or agree that they are not poor. But there are two other groups who do not agree — a small minority, where on the basis of parental reports of household income they are not poor, nevertheless the children feel deprived. Then a larger group where the household is clearly poor, but the children don’t feel poor. Some of this latter group may be explained by ‘adaptive preferences’ — children adapting to their circumstances, but there is also evidence that parents, particularly mothers, protect their children from deprivation by going short themselves. The former group may be the result of money management practices within the family (mean parents not sharing resources), which may affect women as well as children.
Following their Good Childhood Inquiry, the Children’s Society launched the annual Good Childhood Reports (starting in 2012) partly based on a survey of children in England aged 8, 10, 12 and 14. They undertook qualitative research with children to establish a list of items and activities that they considered necessities. This was developed into the child deprivation index employed in subsequent surveys and the Children’s Worlds project now in its fourth wave in 35 countries throughout the world. It has demonstrated that children as young as eight are capable of answering questions to assess their material well-being.
We certainly need information on income and deprivation from parents, but we also need the views of children. Indeed, there is a closer association between children’s views of their material circumstances and their subjective well-being than between household income and their subjective well-being.
At present, we do not collect information from children about their material circumstances in the main Office for National Statistics surveys in the UK, including the Family Resources Survey, the Integrated Households Survey or the Living Costs and Food survey. Nor does the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (SILC) include questions for children. Any of these surveys could easily include a module for children following the methods tried and tested in the Understand Society survey and in Children’s Worlds.
A greater understanding of poverty from the perspective of the child must be a research priority. Civil society and some academics are already contributing — for example the recent study of the impact of the two-child limit (in relation to eligibility for certain benefits) on the families and children by a coalition of NGOs and the Church of England. But we could also do with more effort from the academic community, the Office for National Statistics and the government.
The Covid-19 crisis has of course had an enormous impact on child poverty. Not least because the government’s response to the crisis, though an unprecedented increase in social support, completely neglected the needs of children. Many NGOs and academics have recommended that the easiest way of supporting the living standards of families with children as incomes fall and unemployment increases would be to increase child benefit. But so far the only pro child measure has been maintaining means-tested free school meals, in England in the form of vouchers.
The British Academy has undertaken a programme of work that seeks to re-frame debates around childhood in both the public and policy spaces and break down academic, policy and professional silos in order to explore new conceptualisations of children in policymaking. Find out more about the Childhood Policy Programme.
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