Monthly Archives: August 2016

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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