The concept of inequality is important because it is known that countries with high levels of inequality such as the UK are also likely to have high levels of poverty and disadvantage. We know that people in more equal societies tend to live longer, have better mental health and have better chances for a good education regardless of their background. Importantly, community life and social cohesion have been shown to be stronger where the income gap is narrower.
From this perspective, the problems of material inequality and poverty are fundamentally linked to the issue of how resources are distributed and redistributed in a country. Furthermore, writers and researchers such as Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) have provided a convincing argument that it is inequality itself that has given rise to many of our social ills, including a lack of social mobility.
They observe that greater inequality seems to heighten people’s social evaluation anxieties; increasing the importance of class and social status and the prejudice and assumptions that go along with this. UK income inequality is now among the highest in the developed world and there is mounting evidence about the negative effects.
HOW DO WE DEFINE POVERTY?
How we define poverty is crucial because the ways in which we assess, understand and address it are the subject of continuing and conflicting debate and analysis.
In developed countries, poverty is often viewed as relative. Relative poverty refers to standards defined in terms of the individual society and what is considered necessary. This is problematic because our ideas about this, especially in an increasingly technological and material society, are constantly changing.
In July 2015, the current Government announced its intention to scrap the targets for poverty reduction set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010 and replace them with a new duty to report levels of educational attainment, worklessness and addiction, rather than relative material disadvantage, to be known as the Life Chances Act.
These proposals have been rejected by the House of Lords and the measures were seen by many as a denial that child poverty is fundamentally about families not having enough money to live on. It is possible that the Government will continue to pursue these reforms through the parliamentary process.
All in all, there is no consensus about how poverty should be defined or what it truly means in terms of the realities of family life.
WHO IS POOR IN THE UK?
Poverty is an experience that anyone from any social class or background can have, but certain groups are historically more vulnerable. According to the Child Poverty Action Group and other monitoring bodies, these include lone parents, families with a disabled member, certain black and minority ethnic groups and workless or low-paid families.
A recent report from the Children’s Commissioner highlights the well-documented rise in the use of food banks, and increases in fuel poverty, debt and arrears in payment of rent, council tax and other household bills, as indicators that poverty is on the increase however it is eventually defined.
The negative implications for young children include a development gap of more than a year and a half between the most disadvantaged and the most advantaged children. Research has also highlighted the importance of multiple risk factors, with the clear implication being that the more problems an individual family is experiencing, the more likely it is that there will be negative consequences for the children.
These problems might include housing instability and overcrowding, parental depression, financial stress, teenage parenthood and a host of other potentially negative factors arising from challenging circumstances.
In 2014, the Living Wage Commission found that 6.7 million of the 13 million people in poverty in the UK were in a household where someone works. The report also found that housing costs had tripled in the previous 15 years, one and a half times the amount by which wages had risen; and electricity, gas and water bills had risen by 88 per cent over a period of five years. This trend seems set to continue as rents in particular continue to rise as a result of the housing crisis.
Changes to the benefits system also provide a worrying backdrop, and tax and benefit changes are known to have hit families with young children harder than any other household type. While the reversal of proposed tax-credit reductions has benefited families in the short term, it is the looming introduction of Universal Credit that counts in the longer term.
Despite funding being made available to support benefit changes and the introduction of a living wage, the overall indication is that many families may fall into poverty and debt in the coming year.
EXAMINING ATTITUDES TO POVERTY
Arguably there has been a significant shift in perspective from a focus on family economics and income as determinants of poverty to a focus on poor parenting skills and a tendency to allocate blame. This insidious tendency to blame parents for their circumstances and view them negatively has been heavily media-driven, and research in progress (Simpson, D, Nursery Management, 21 September 2015) indicates that a majority of early years practitioners may see disadvantage as a result of troubled parenting; attributing it to individual failings rather than situational factors. This trend is deeply worrying.
The gap in attainment will be difficult to plug if young children are constantly subjected to overt and subtle messages about who is considered better than whom and who is valued in society at the same time as they are developing a sense of identity and self-worth. Such values and attitudes may also result in services designed to help families being seen as punitive and characterised by a lack of trust. It seems timely for settings to take stock of the values and attitudes that underpin the services they provide for families in challenging circumstances through no fault of their own.
Daniella is a lone parent with a daughter who is three and a half. She says her experience of the benefit system has made her feel ‘a failure as a mum’ and deprived her of her identity. Her child currently attends a nursery for 15 hours a week where she says she does not always feel welcome. She feels she is sometimes marginalised because she has a free place and cannot afford for her child to be full time.
Overall she feels discriminated against and stigmatised as a lone parent and feels that negative assumptions are made about her and the quality of her parenting. She emphasises that she became a lone parent as a result of circumstances including domestic abuse in which she acted responsibly by separating from her partner.
She currently lives in one room which is damp and says there is nowhere for her daughter to play inside or outdoors. As a consequence they go out a lot and her child cannot have friends back to play like other children.
She has a tight budget and worries about how to replace items that wear out. She does not have a television or a computer. Despite worrying constantly about the impact of her stressful circumstances on her child, she says they have a very loving and positive relationship and feels that this is more important than anything else.
She is very positive about her experience with the local Home-Start agency, which has been supporting her since her child was 26 months old. Through regular visits from a volunteer, they have provided practical help, such as clothes, a kettle and an iron, and she has even had her washing done once a week when she had nowhere to dry it. At the same time they provided emotional support and some precious time for herself. She found the non-judgemental service ‘empathetic’ and ‘empowering’ and says it has increased her self-esteem and given her hope.
POINTS FOR REFLECTION
• How is poverty viewed in your setting?
• Should anti-bias training on these issues be part of your continuing professional development?
• What more can be done to develop a non-judgemental and empathetic approach to families in difficulty?
• Changing the Odds in the Early Years (2015). A report from the Children’s Commissioner, www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/Changing%20the%20Odds%20discussion%20paper_1.pdf
• Simpson, D. ‘Nursery Management: Poverty – Destined for failure?’, Nursery Management, 21 September 2015, www.nurseryworld.co.uk/nursery-world/feature/1153769/nursery-management-poverty-destined-for-failure
• Home-Start UK: www.home-start.org.uk
• Information on Benefits: www.citizensadvice.org.uk/benefits; and http://gingerbread.org.uk/content/2013/Check-your-benefit-entitlements
Mary Dickins is an early years consultant and author specialising in inclusion. This series will go on to examine the social, educational, and physical and psychological effects of poverty.
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