Child Poverty: The problem with parents…

In a recent blog the executive director of Oxfam predicted that if current trends in global wealth continue then by next year the combined wealth of the richest 1% of the world’s population will overtake that of the other 99% of its people. It is truly astounding that we have arrived at this level of inequality but what is almost as unbelievable is how attitudes towards poverty have moved to a position which not only accepts this as an inevitable social reality but implies that the responsibility lies at the door of the individuals who experience it. This is particularly true in the UK where government social policy has increasingly focused on the behaviour of individuals as the explanation for their experience of poverty and in relation to child poverty the actions of parents.

This of course has not always been the case as in the post war period following the introduction of the British Welfare State there was a clear focus on tackling broader structural inequality which was largely out of the control of the individual as noted by Wolfe and Klausen (2000, p8) ‘The left demanded the creation and expansion of the welfare state. Public policy should redistribute income and subsidize, if not deliver directly, essential services such as education and health. The ideal was a society in which inequalities associated with social class would fade away’. There was a general acceptance at this time that poverty arose because of the unfair workings of the capitalist system and that it was the role of the state to intervene and create ways of redressing the relative lack of power of the poor (Potter and Brotherton, 2013).

A significant shift in government policy followed the election of the Conservative party to government in 1979 who had become increasingly critical of a growing welfare system which they argued had encouraged a culture of dependence. Influenced by the work of Charles Murray (1984, 1990 & 1994) and his concept of the ‘underclass’ the Conservatives set about reframing the way the poor were viewed and treated which has undoubtedly contributed to our increasing belief that poverty is the consequence of individual failure. It is worth noting that during this 18 year period of government this attitude towards welfare services resulted in a dramatic increase in the proportion of children living in poverty from 1 in 10 in 1979 to 1 in 3 in 1998 (End Child Poverty, 2014).

This discourse gathered some pace during the subsequent New Labour era of government as they reframed attempts to tackle poverty in terms of interfering with the process of social exclusion which focused on enabling individuals to gain equal access to welfare provisions. This was to be achieved by social policy which emphasised an individual’s ‘right’ to access welfare services in exchange for them behaving ‘responsibly’ which in essence involved their adherence to a model of the ideal citizen. For Lavalette and Pratt (2006, p39) ‘The Third Way theory has been to fit workers for capital’s purposes: not to modify capital so that its consequences no longer initially and ultimately rest on the shoulders of those made poor, vulnerable and unemployed by its operations’. Another key contribution which New Labour made was to engage in an explicit attempt to break the ‘cycle of disadvantage’ by channelling resources into Early Years provision in line with its new ‘social investment state’ which aimed to maximise impact with targeted interventions. This resulted in a commitment to eliminating child poverty by 2020 and a series of early years policies (most notably via the Sure Start initiative). Very young children in particular were to receive special attention, as investment in their futures was seen as the best way to influence the prosperity of individuals and most importantly that of society.

The most recent and arguably the most sinister development of this discourse emerged following the election of the Coalition government and took the form of a relentless assault on the behaviour of parents. The key justification for this focus was provided by MP Graham Allen’s Early Intervention report which states that ‘What parents do is more important than who they are. Especially in a child’s earliest years, the right kind of parenting is a bigger influence on their future than wealth, class, education or any other common social factor’ (Allen, 2011, pxiv). This provided the perfect rationale for an exclusive focus on parents’ behaviour and the dismissal of any broader structural factors which impact on the experience of poverty. Shortly after this the core purpose of Sure Start Children’s Centres was amended to reflect this change from offering parenting support to the new focus on providing parenting skills. This indicated a significant shift from supporting parents in managing their responsibilities (whilst acknowledging that a wide range of approaches and styles can and do exist) to a position where a particular set of skills were seen as preferable and needing to be instilled (Cronin & Brotherton, 2013). This agenda was reinforced by the introduction of a ‘payment by results’ initiative which rewarded Children’s Centres success in relation to the new core purpose and the launch of a scheme which offered free parenting classes to all parents in three trial areas (notably areas of medium to high deprivation).

In an age of ‘evidence-based’ social policy Graham Allen made clear reference to the research supporting his recommendations which arrived at some questionable conclusions. This research was undertaken by Demos and entitled ‘Building Character’ (Lexmond & Reeves, 2009). It sought to explore the source of five year old children’s acquisition of ‘character’ which it considered to be a significant predictor of a child’s future success. The research took into consideration the potential influence of structural factors (e.g. poverty, disability, ethnicity), parenting style (approach to parenting) and psychological vulnerability (genetic factors) and came to the conclusion that parenting style had the biggest impact on a child’s character. It went further by identifying ‘tough love’ (emotional warmth with clear boundaries) as the most successful and ‘disengaged’ (low warmth and discipline) as the least successful. It also identified that tough love was less prevalent in low-income households and disengaged was most prevalent in these households. This research set out a clear case for targeting the poor with classes about how to become a ‘tough love’ parent in order to prevent their children from experiencing poverty. However, close examination of the data in this research clearly shows that household income is more statistically significant than parenting style in terms of the children’s outcomes. These results were conveniently buried as they did not contribute to the required individual behaviour discourse but rather suggested the more significant impact of broader structural factors outside of the parent’s control.

At the same time as these new approaches to tackling child poverty were being implemented it is significant that in November 2012 the Coalition Government proposed a change in the way child poverty was monitored arguing that a new ‘multidimensional measure’ was required which looked beyond income and advocated abandoning the use of the 60% of median household income as a threshold for relative poverty. However, this was quickly exposed as an attempt to avoid direct historical comparisons which will no doubt expose an increase in child poverty under this government. In fact the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission in its response to these proposals note that ‘any new measure needs to supplement, not replace, the existing framework of the Child Poverty Act, whose relative measures enable international comparisons and drive clear accountability’ (2013).

Nevertheless, the pressure applied to poor parents to conform to a narrow definition of parenting has endured and continues to gather pace with consideration being given to the possibility of paying vulnerable parents to attend parenting programmes as well as considering ways in which entitlement to free childcare provisions for vulnerable families can be linked with prescribed parenting plans. It is not that a focus on the role of parents in terms of children’s outcomes has ever been off the social policy agenda, it is however the first time that all other factors have been discounted and discredited to the same degree as they have under this Coalition Government. It also seems perfectly likely that any indication that child poverty has increased will now be framed in terms of parental failure and not the consequence of aggressive capitalism and a shrinking welfare state.

Mark Cronin

Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education and Care, Newman University.


Allen, G. (2011) Early Intervention: The Next Steps [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 20 November 2012).

Cronin, M. & Brotherton, G. (2013) ‘The Legal and Policy Context’ in Brotherton, G. & Cronin, M. (eds) Working with Vulnerable Children, Young People and Families,Oxon: Routledge, pp.35-48.

Lavalette, M. and Pratt, A. (2006) Social Policy: Theories, Concepts and Issues. London: Sage.

Lexmond, J. and Reeves, R. (2009) ‘Parents are the principle architects of a fairer society…’ Building Character. London: Demos.

Murray, C. (1984) Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980. New York: Basic Books.

Murray, C. (1990) The emerging British underclass in IEA Health and Welfare Unit (1996) ‘Charles Murray and the underclass’ Choice in Welfare No.33   IEA/Sunday Times: London.

Murray, C. (1994) Underclass: the crisis deepens in IEA Health and Welfare Unit (1996) ‘Charles Murray and the underclass’ Choice in Welfare No.33 IEA/Sunday Times: London.

Potter, T. & Brotherton, G. (2013) ‘What do we mean when we talk about ‘vulnerability?’ in Brotherton, G. & Cronin, M. (eds) Working with Vulnerable Children, Young People and Families,Oxon: Routledge, pp.1-15.

Wolfe, A. and Klausen, J. (2000) ‘Other People’, Prospect, December.

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