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Addressing vulnerability by putting cash in mums’ pockets

This blog was originally written for the Glasgow Centre for Population Health

There is a lot of negative attention these days towards those who are living with low incomes, and almost daily we see and hear reports of ‘lazy, work-shy scroungers’. When asked to estimate benefit fraud, people almost always woefully overestimate its incidence. In the British Social Attitudes Survey a third of people believed that “most people on the dole are fiddling” and over three quarters agreed with the statement “large numbers of people these days falsely claim benefits”.

The actual rate of benefit fraud in 2014-15 was 0.8%. If truth be told, there is rather the opposite problem, especially for those in low income working families with children; that is, those who are entitled to certain benefits do not in fact claim them. For example, UK government statistics for 2013-14 show that only two thirds of those who are eligible for Working Tax Credits actually claim their entitlement.

There are numerous reasons why a family may not claim their full tax credit or benefit entitlement, not least of which is the awareness of their entitlement in the first place. This is especially true of those having their first children who may also be negotiating the confusing tax credit and benefit system for the first time.

Tax credit and benefit payments have recently been criticised for being inadequate for people’s needs. As they are means-tested, this suggests that being eligible for, or in receipt of these payments, is associated with a high level of need to begin with. In 2015, an unemployed single person received out-of-work benefits equivalent to 40% of what even the public says they need. Whether or not you agree that the levels of tax credits and benefits are sufficient for a family’s needs, it is unarguably the case that being eligible and not taking up tax credit and benefit entitlement must be greatly detrimental to the financial wellbeing of a family and must greatly increase their financial vulnerability.

Recent research in Scotland that uses the Growing Up in Scotland data shows that families experiencing financial vulnerability have increased maternal emotional distress and lower child wellbeing. One way to help improve the outcomes of families, particularly mothers and children, would be to increase their financial resources and reduce their financial vulnerability. One very straightforward way to do this, within the current context of tax credits and benefits, with no additional entitlement from either the UK or Scottish governments, would be to ensure that people, especially families, claim their full entitlement to tax credits and benefits. This is known as income maximisation. There are multiple examples of good practice in income maximisation; however, one study in Glasgow targets the very population that has most to lose: mothers with new babies. It is called Healthier, Wealthier Children (HWC).

Healthier, Wealthier Children

HWC is an initiative that helps provide money and welfare advice to pregnant women and families with young children experiencing, or at risk of, child poverty across NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. HWC is primarily located within the frontline NHS early years workforce, such as midwives and health visitors in collaboration with local money/welfare advice services. Health staff identify the need for help and advice among pregnant women and families and refer them to partners in advice services.

The performance report to February 2016 shows that HWC achieved just over £11 million in cumulative financial gains for over 10,300 pregnant women and families. Comparing this cumulative figure of £11 million with the initial costs and combined annual running costs (approximately £2.2m), the project has conservatively achieved a benefit-to-cost ratio of around 5:1; a major achievement that exceeds the project’s initial remit and best case scenario expectations.

Why was so much money in Greater Glasgow and Clyde unclaimed? Well, an evaluation of HWC shows that families referred by HWC were unaware of their entitlements and would not have approached traditional mainstream advice services for help. On the plus side, as a result of HWC intervention, families reported reduced stress, improved mood and an increased sense of self-worth and security. Some also reported an improvement in relationships with family and friends.

We know that tackling poverty and income inequalities remains key to improving health and reducing health inequalities, and for the mothers and children who receive the HWC service this is certainly the case. What remains to be seen, in post-election Scotland, is whether such an initiative can be rolled out more widely, across all of Scotland, so that new parents can access that to which they are entitled and help prevent child poverty and financial vulnerability.

Once families are actually receiving their entitlement can we then focus the discussion on whether or not the level of entitlement is sufficient to prevent child poverty and financial vulnerability.

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Recent changes to measuring child poverty

This blog was originally written for Challenge Poverty Week 2015

The Conservative government is planning to change the current measure of child poverty, which combines income (60% median equivalised) and material deprivation (21 items commonly agreed as essential by members of the general public for adults and children separately, which are then combined to create an index of multiple deprivation).[1]

The proposed new child poverty measure would comprise commonplace family characteristics such as: family ‘breakdown’, ill-health, lack of skills, inadequate housing, ‘poor’ schools and ‘worklessness’. Let’s lay aside the fact that these characteristics do not distinguish between poor and non-poor people as they are experienced by many people at different points in the lives[2]. Let’s also lay aside the fact that these dimensions do not measure poverty itself, but rather are risks, consequences or causes of falling into poverty. Let’s instead focus on what analysing income and material deprivation can tell us in relation to child wellbeing.

It is worth briefly commenting on the background to the current child poverty measure. It was reached after a period of extensive consultation using research evidence. Not only has the 60% median equivalised income measure succeeded in capturing the effects of complex economic situations, it is also the official child poverty measure of the EU, OECD and UNICEF, and is now used by other governments[3].To change this measure now not only negates the considered and considerable efforts of many, it will separate UK child poverty from the rest of Europe and beyond. The government also risks being accused of changing the goalposts in recognition of its impending failure to reduce or eradicate child poverty.[4]

Let us turn our attention now to income, material deprivation and child wellbeing. The following chart is from my recent analysis of six waves of the birth cohort study Growing up in Scotland (See Figure 1 below) when the children are aged six years old. The red line with mean equal to 0 is the average of child wellbeing across all children in the study. Any positive numbers above this line shows higher than average levels of child wellbeing and any negative numbers below this line shows lower than average child wellbeing.

This chart shows that material deprivation (solid line) and recurrent poverty (dotted line) are each associated with lower than average child wellbeing; increasing levels of either income poverty or material deprivation result in increasingly low levels of child wellbeing. However, when both recurrent poverty and material deprivation are measured together (combined multiplicatively in an interaction term to be technical – dashed line), this results in exceedingly low levels of wellbeing for children, greater than either material deprivation or income poverty added together. This indicates that income and material deprivation while related, for the definition of material deprivation is not being able to afford consensually agreed necessities, are picking up on different aspects of economic disadvantage, which when combined, equal to more than the sum of their parts in their association with low levels of child wellbeing. This suggests that using both income and material deprivation in a measure of poverty is valuable and necessary.

Figure 1 – Interaction term between recurrent poverty and material deprivation for child wellbeing

 graph

 

 

 

 

 

Another advantage to the current measure of income and material deprivation is that it is objectively measured and comparable across time and place. The proposed new components of child poverty, i.e. family ‘breakdown’, ill-health, lack of skills, inadequate housing, ‘poor’ schools and parental ‘worklessness’,  do not distinguish between poor and non-poor people but result in a highly stigmatised and distressed group of people.

[1] For more details on how this index is created, and what the implications are of how the index is created, please refer to Treanor (2014).

[2] I have written about this more fully in a consultation response.

[3] http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2012/11/moving-goal-posts-wont-hide-coalitions-failure-child-poverty

[4] http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2012/11/moving-goal-posts-wont-hide-coalitions-failure-child-poverty

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Free education for mothers living in poverty may help alleviate child poverty

This blog was first published in The Conversation.

Improve the school results of children from poor backgrounds and they will escape poverty in adulthood. This is the way the UK government believes it can alleviate child poverty, built on a belief in the power of education to create social mobility.

But there is much evidence to suggest that access to education is unequal across the UK. And while the long-term goal to increase social mobility is laudable, it does nothing to lift children out of poverty now. Instead, it shows a lack of consideration for the lives of children currently living in poverty.

Yet if policy priorities were to focus on giving the parents of children living in poverty access to further and higher education, this could bring more immediate benefits. Unfortunately, in England at least, education is becoming increasingly unaffordable for lone parents and part-time students to access.

Ways out of poverty

The latest government figures show that in 2012-13 there were 2.3m children living in relative low income, even before housing costs were taken into account, with another 2.6m in absolute low income.

In 2000, Scotland had higher child poverty rates than England, but this has fallen over the past decade. By 2011-12, child poverty before housing costs was 18% in England compared to 17% in Scotland, both down from over 30%. One of the principal reasons for the faster decline in Scotland has been attributed to increased employment rates among lone parentsafter the Scottish government had a policy targeted at this group.

The evidence shows that employment does not always lift families out of poverty: there are more poor children in households with a wage-earner than without. Yet my research with the Child Poverty Action Group shows that parents – in this case single mothers – who accessed further and higher education succeeded in finding paid employment and that this had a positive impact on both them and their children.

Gaining confidence and skills

My research studied the lives of 20 families living in poverty, ten in England and ten in Scotland. In Scotland, four of the ten families I studied were led by single mothers who were participating in further or higher education. None in England were. Two of these four Scottish mothers completed further education and obtained their first job after becoming a parent: one is the mother of three boys aged six, ten and 13 and the other the mother of two boys aged ten and 12. The other two mothers, who each have one son, continued on to take degree programmes.

People living in poverty often need a boost in confidence and skills before they start up education again. For three of the women I studied, this came through volunteering opportunities. One explained that volunteering was “really good for me” and that the organisation had: “talked me into doing my degree. It was always something I wanted to do. I was just needing a wee boost.”

Boost to family well-being

Through access to education, these women gained in well-being, confidence, skills and self-esteem. They made friends, widened their social networks and found universities and colleges to be excellent sources of financial support through hardship funds.

By completing their education and obtaining a job, the lives of their children demonstrably improved. With their mothers less burdened by financial worries, the children were happier and were able to enjoy treats such as the cinema and an occasional meal out – all new to them. One mother, who had done a Higher National Diploma, said getting a job meant she was able to pass her driving test, save up to buy a car and take her children on holiday.

Another mother said the knowledge that she had completed a college course and succeeded in getting a job she loved had a positive impact on her children. Her eldest son, aged 13, has told her he is proud of her and feels a positive change.

Access to education has helped to increase social mobility in this cluster of families. It has not only provided the mothers with the skills and confidence to engage with their own education, but also with that of their children, for who they are now role models.

Education has also opened up a world to which neither they nor their children may have aspired. It has provided them with a starting point to bigger and better opportunities. One mother said: “I know that I’ve got loads more to offer… hopefully I’ll get better jobs and better paid jobs.”

Squeeze on part-time education

Access to education has been possible for these mothers because there are no fees for higher education in Scotland. In England, since fees were raised to £9,000 per annum, there has been a 40% decline in applications to universities from part-time students, amounting to 105,000 fewer applicants, nine out of ten of whom are mature.

Between 2010 and 2013, there has been a 14% reduction in applications from full-time mature students, amounting to 18,500 fewer applicants. Among these potential mature students will be parents and lone parents.

The increase of tuition fees has effectively removed access to further and higher education for many poorer parents, which blocks a viable route out of poverty for them and their children. For social mobility to continue improving, access to education for low-income parents needs to be made cheaper and easier.

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Routes out of poverty: education and social mobility

This was first published for Challenge Poverty Week 2014 and then for the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships.

Education and social mobility can alleviate child poverty, but not in the way the government supposes, i.e. by improving future educational outcomes of poor children in order that they do not become poor adults. Rather, child poverty in the here and now can be alleviated if we allow low-income parents free access to further and higher education.

The UK Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017, released for consultation by the Coalition Government last February, is focused on ‘breaking the cycle of disadvantage’ and on ensuring that ‘where you start in life should not determine where you end up’. Two of its three routes to achieving this are: Supporting families into work and increasing their earnings; and preventing poor children becoming poor adults through raising their educational attainment[1].

To address the first route their principal means of supporting families into work and increasing their earnings is through the Work Programme and other employment-related activities such as raising the minimum wage and the personal tax allowance. A secondary means is through ‘improving qualifications’. Further investigation reveals that this translates into improving basic literacy and numeracy.

To address the second route, their principle means of preventing poor children becoming poor adults through raising their educational attainment, is to focus on compulsory schooling with the responsibility and accountability for this lying with schools, teachers and parents. As the government notes, they want to ‘ensure that the parents of tomorrow will have better qualifications’[2] -presumably better than the parents of today.

Now, this raises many areas of concern, from the lack of consideration for the lives of children as lived in childhood[3], to the ability of employment to lift families out of poverty[4], given the fact that there are more poor children in households with a wage-earner than without; however, I would like to focus on an issue that I have come across with my current research with the Child Poverty Action Group, and that is the further and higher education of parents living in poverty as a route into work and, hopefully, out of poverty.

In my longitudinal, qualitative study of twenty families living in poverty, ten in England and ten in Scotland, four of my Scottish ten were able to access further or higher education during the course of the research. None in England were. Two of this four completed further education and obtained their first job since becoming a parent: one is the mother of three boys aged 6, 10 and 13 and the other the mother of two boys aged 10 and 12. The remaining two went on to study degree programmes: these two mothers have one son each. The antecedent to accessing education for these women was gaining confidence and skills through volunteering.

These women gained in wellbeing, confidence, skills and self-esteem. They made friends and widened their social networks. The lives of their children demonstrably improved. Of her new job, Jennifer says: ‘I totally love it. I’m really, really happy. So, last year was a great year for me. I passed my driving test, got my wee car, which I saved up and paid for myself, and I took my kids on holiday. I love it, totally love it’.

Jennifer says that the knowledge that she has completed a college course and succeeded in getting a job she loves has had a positive impact on her children, particularly her eldest son (aged 13), who has told her that he is proud of her. She says: ‘my oldest one, he’s often saying to me: “It’s good the way you are now, you’re really happy now. Remember when it was like this?” So he feels a positive change. So that’s really good’.

This is only a brief glimpse into this research but I want to highlight that in Scotland, education is a viable route into employment and out of poverty for parents who are unemployed, due to the system of no fees in Scotland (this is not entirely straightforward as becoming a student when you’re a parent can raise issues with the benefits system, and I will write about those another time). In England, there has been a 40% decline in applications to universities from part-time students, amounting to 105,000 fewer applicants, 9/10 of whom are mature[5]. For full-time students, there has been a 14% reduction from 2010 to 2013, amounting to 18,500 fewer applicants[6]. Among this potential mature student community will be parents and lone parents. By increasing the fees in other parts of the UK to £9,000 per year, the government has effectively removed access to further and higher education for many poorer parents and prevented a route out of poverty for them and their children.

[1] The UK Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017, pg 11.
[2] The UK Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017, pg 25.
[3] Ridge, Tess (2002) Childhood poverty and social exclusion: from a child’s perspective, Bristol: Policy Press.
[4] Shildrick, Tracy, MacDonald, Robert, Webster, Colin and Garthwaite, Kayleigh (2012) Poverty and Insecurity: Life in Low-Pay, No-Pay Britain, Bristol: Policy Press.
[5]http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/highereducation/Documents/2013/PowerOfPartTime.pdf
[6] http://www.suttontrust.com/newsarchive/18000-fewer-mature-students-apply-university-since-fees-increase/

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Child Poverty

This blog was published for the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships on the back of a consultation response I wrote when the then Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government at Westminster sought to change the existing measure of child poverty, a process which continues today. The consultation response can be found under ‘Publications’.

When is a family’s life impaired by living in poverty? How do we know? What does it look like? How do we measure it? What rights do poor people have to meet the material needs that others take for granted? Why does child poverty in the UK matter? Is it because of the future financial and social costs to society? Or is it the lived experience of poverty during childhood? As austerity bites and attitudes (in the media) towards the poor and the vulnerable harden, whose responsibility is it to ensure that everyone, irrespective of wealth, is treated with dignity and respect?

These are among the questions not considered in the UK government’s ideas for a new measure of child poverty.

Before considering the proposed new measure of child poverty, let’s look at the existing one. The one currently used was reached through lengthy consultation with skilled and knowledgeable people. It measures people’s income: (1) in relation to the income spectrum across the UK (relative poverty); (2) in relation to a fixed point in time (absolute poverty); and (3) it measures the affordability and ownership of material items, such as two pairs of all-weather shoes and a winter coat (material deprivation).  The items that make up the list of material deprivation were deemed necessary by a cross-section of ordinary people (the consensual method).  This is the one that current and future governments were obligated to reduce under the Child Poverty Act (2010), which is now being dismantled. So why change it?

Well, the government doesn’t like it for one – it has drawn criticism from Iain Duncan Smith for being simplistic. Yes, using the relative poverty line alone, those who are just above the poverty line may face similar hardships as those just below the poverty line, so it is not sensitive to this aspect. Yet, it is more than just a relative poverty line. It is multidimensional (as set out above), objective, well-defined, comparable, and above all, measurable. It is not perfect but it is widely used across institutions such as the UN, OECD and the EU, which allows comparability.

The proposals put forward by the government for a new measure of poverty cover eight dimensions: income and material deprivation; worklessness; unmanageable debt; poor housing; parental skill level; access to quality education; family stability; and parental health (including young carers, drug and alcohol dependency, and mental health issues). The government believes that these denote a multidimensional measure of poverty. Let’s leave aside the fact that income and material deprivation already make a multidimensional measure of poverty, let’s focus instead on the suggested new dimensions. There are three issues that strike me about them.

The first is how little they discriminate among people in the population. Who hasn’t experienced a separation or remarriage in the family? Who hasn’t experienced ill-health? Who is debt free? These questions don’t even take us past the Royal family.

The second is that these are not measures of child poverty, but consequences, and sometimes causes, of poverty. Causes and consequences of poverty can be mutually reinforcing, such as ill-health leading to poverty and poverty leading to ill-health. Some of these dimensions are relatively ordinary life experiences that, if handled sensitively and without conflict, leave no adverse impact on children.

The third is the lack of definition. How many of these circumstances, in what order, at what time period, for how long, count as poverty? Forever? Similarly, do all conditions have to be present, in which case, the government may have eradicated child poverty overnight? Or do only a few dimensions have to be present, in which case, the majority of the population may be living with child poverty?

The consultation itself has been called a ‘sham‘ as the government maintains that the measure will be implemented, it’s the how that is being consulted upon. The proposed new measure itself has attracted accusations that the government is trying to change the goalposts to distract from the fact that they may fail to reduce child poverty as demanded by the Child Poverty Act. These criticisms may or may not be valid; however, what is clear is that this imminent measure of poverty does not bear witness to the research evidence so carefully collected over many years. This proposed new measure is the result of this government’s particular ideology and methodological confusion, one that muddles up measures of poverty with its causes and consequences, and one that blames the behaviour and circumstances of poor people for being in poverty.

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