What effect have poverty and austerity had on children and families?
Earlier this year Child Poverty Action Group, Association of Directors of Children’s Services and researchers from the Child Welfare Inequalities Project surveyed social workers on the frontline, and the report of what they told us – out this week - makes for sobering reading.
Fundamentally, families’ lives have become more and more difficult as they struggle with changing benefit rules, reduced incomes, precarious housing options and fewer support services. One social worker told us:
“Even in two years, the proportion of families with debts, rent arrears has increased….. Two years ago, only half of the families needed support with Christmas presents. Last Christmas, every family needed help with presents.”
When parents are worried about whether they have enough to feed their children or keep a roof over their heads, children’s wellbeing can be affected and family relations can suffer. This finding reinforces what we already know about the important connection between broader social issues and psychological troubles.
For social workers, working effectively with families to ensure children are safe and can flourish has become far more difficult in a context where families and professionals alike are struggling with reduced resources. For example, zero-hour contracts and poor transport can mean families are less able to attend appointments with social workers and other professionals.
It’s clear in the findings that austerity has hollowed out services in local authorities. These include universal services such as youth services and children’s centres, as well as those that are more specialised like Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). A picture emerges of all those involved being squeezed to the bone, severely reducing the likelihood of achieving good outcomes for children and their families.
These findings strengthen the growing case for confronting the role poverty plays in children’s chances of thriving in their families and communities. This report adds to a significant body of evidence highlighting the profound inequalities between children and young people in the UK. For example, the Child Welfare Inequalities Project found that a child in the most deprived 10 per cent of areas in England is over ten times more likely to be in care than a child in the least deprived.
In the last few years, the growing evidence base has encouraged the development of poverty-aware practice. This is welcome progress, given that professional practice has not always joined the dots and recognised the role poverty, and associated issues such as poor housing, plays in the ability to parent well. Indeed, previously a child protection approach reigned, largely uncontested, which reduced difficulties in families to the failings of parents (especially mothers). However, poverty-aware practice has now challenged this and highlighted the importance of carrying out financial health checks and supporting families to access resources. This approach promotes a value base that emphasises standing alongside families and working with them to support rather than regulate.
There is now some evidence that during lockdown this value base has been strengthened in social work, particularly as the inequalities that scar our society have been brutally exposed. Digital exclusion has been exposed as children can’t stay in touch, and many professionals have become more aware of the everyday realities of raising children in overcrowded flats, with no outside space for play, through their work engaging with, and in, communities.
However, while developments in practice are very welcome, the findings from this survey highlight the difference, for good or ill, that governments make. Policy decisions in relation to benefits, housing, transport and the funding of local government have huge implications for the everyday lives of children and their families.
This report also highlights the problems of the lack of joined-up thinking across government departments. The Department for Education, for example, has failed to examine how its efforts to improve child protection practice are affected by changes coming from other government departments such as the Department for Work and Pensions. Indeed, a focus on harms within individual families has dominated at the expense of understanding the implications for children and families of what have become known as social harms. These are harms resulting from the policy choices and activities of local and national states and corporations which impact upon the welfare of individuals and families.
The government is committed to ‘levelling up’ – but we have seen that cuts to local government have meant services are less able to support children to be cared for well within their families and communities. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency too. Such cuts have impacted disproportionately on the most deprived local authorities and resulted in a significant shift in spending away from family support and early help. Local authorities need to be properly funded to deliver services for our children, and nationally we need a comprehensive child poverty strategy across government departments to ensure all children can thrive.