Parents, poverty and the state: Reducing pressures on parents and increasing their capabilities

Posted in: Evidence and policymaking, Public services, UK politics, Welfare and social security

Naomi Eisenstadt is a Research Fellow at the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She was the first Director of Sure Start, ran the Social Exclusion Unit, and was advisor on poverty to the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon.

Carey Oppenheim is a member of the University of Bath Institute for Policy Research (IPR) Advisory Board and Research Fellow at the International Inequalities Institute at the LSE. She was Chief Executive of the Early Intervention Foundation and special advisor to former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. 

In the last two decades, political parties have lost their earlier resistance to preaching about family life. For most of the twentieth century, fears of the nanny state and unwelcome interference in the privacy of the home made family policy, and particularly parenting policy a no-go area. Except in extreme cases of child abuse or neglect, what went on within families was seen as a private realm. Somehow, since 1997, governments of all persuasions have become increasingly active in family policy, using, and sometimes misusing, scientific evidence on child development to support interventionist approaches.

In our new book, Parents, Poverty and the State, we explore the changes in demographics and shifts in public attitudes alongside research evidence on what children need to thrive. Through the lens of poverty, we look at what successive governments have done to improve children’s lives, what has worked, and what approaches have been more or less likely to narrow the gap in outcomes between children in poverty and their better off peers.

The basic premise of the book is that the state has two primary roles in making family policy: reducing pressures and increasing capabilities. The balance between the two has changed over the 20 years with the Labour Government of Blair and Brown using income transfers to reduce pressures and investing heavily in support services to increase capabilities. The Coalition Government reduced pressures for some families by improving parental leave for working parents and increasing free childcare. They also continued and expanded some of the efforts to increase capabilities. Under the Conservative administrations, the commitment to expanding childcare has continued and there are initiatives to support the home-learning environment and support family stability. But the overarching impact of austerity policies has been to increase pressures on families. Small investments could not mitigate the impact of sustained reductions in social security benefits, as well as deep cuts to local authority budgets which have resulted in service reductions except for the highest need families. While rhetoric around early intervention has been an ongoing feature in the narratives of Labour, Coalition and Conservative Governments, actual investment has been severely reduced over the last ten years.

The relationship of poverty to poor outcomes for children is a particular focus in the book.  There are fierce debates on the impact of poverty. On the one hand, there is a view that poverty is irrelevant; if only mothers and fathers provided appropriate love, care, and stimulation, their children would fulfil their potential. We challenge this view with research evidence on the importance of family income, not only enabling the provision of goods and services that promote development, but also reducing stress between parents. Yet all governments are faced with inherent tensions: expenditure on benefits or expenditure on support services; universal, open access, or targeted services; efforts to increase social mobility so all have a chance to achieve, or efforts to reduce inequality between groups so that the consequences of lack of mobility are not so dire.

Our conclusions in the book are clear: money matters to child outcomes, and parents matter as well. Living in poverty does not guarantee poor outcomes, but it makes achieving good outcomes harder. Similarly, living in relative wealth does not guarantee good outcomes, but it makes poor outcomes less likely. And while we agree that experiences and nurture in the early years are critically important for children, a good start is not inoculation and a poor start is retrievable with the right support. We also believe that government policy can make a difference, particularly the right combination of income transfers and open access services.

But other key players are also important. Employers can do more to encourage fathers to take their parental leave entitlements, voluntary organisations provide crucial support, and also play an important role in campaigning on behalf of their beneficiaries. Both voluntary organisations and local government and health providers can do more to bring to light the lived experience of service users to inform policy solutions. Involving people who are the focus for an intervention in its design and its evaluation makes it much more likely that the solution will be fit for purpose.

The infrastructure for family support is fragile, but we believe there is still significant agreement across parties on the importance of reducing pressures on parents and increasing their capabilities. Making the case given other political priorities is tough, but essential.

This blog was originally published via LSE British Politics and Policy on 30 September 2019.

Posted in: Evidence and policymaking, Public services, UK politics, Welfare and social security


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