Poverty and parenting


Title: The Relationship Between Parenting and Poverty
Authors: Ilan Katz, Judy Corlyon, Vincent La Placa and Sarah Hunter
Institutions: This research project was based at the Policy Research Bureau in London. Ilan Katz is now director of the Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Australia Judy Corlyon is principal researcher/consultant at the Tavistock Institute, London and Vincent La Placa is senior research executive at Hobsons PLC
Available: The research is published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2007 


A major study published by Joseph Rowntree last year found one-quarter of adults in the UK and one-third of the nation’s children were living in poverty. In fact the eradication of childhood poverty and tackling social exclusion has been a key objective of social policy for New Labour. But as we head toward a general election all three major parties have put childhood poverty at the heart of domestic policy in their respective manifestos. The overall objective of this research review was to understand the link between poverty and parenting. Katz and his colleagues explored the extent to which poverty itself affects parenting or whether other parental characteristics and circumstances, such as mental health, personality or family structure undermine parenting capacity, or more controversially, exacerbate the chances of being poor.

The research review also sought to examine both aspects affected by poverty as well as understand how “good” parenting can “act as a protective buffer” to children living in a poor environment.

Like all major research reviews the authors were also seeking to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the knowledge base and to identify current gaps in the research.


The authors avoid simplistic conclusions and the whole of this review rewards careful study. It captures some of the multiple, and at times contested, messages from research, and therefore underlines the complexities of the relationship between parenting and poverty.

Katz and his fellow authors point out that there is a significant limitation to the existing knowledge base, in that it has tended to focus upon “parenting problems” and therefore is in danger of promoting a model that views parents who live in poverty as being deficit in their ability to care for and bring up their children. They propose an alternative whereby any discussion of the relationship of parenting and poverty must start by acknowledging that most parents who live in poverty manage perfectly adequately. Indeed, they claim that existing research fails to capture the strengths and coping mechanisms that many families who live in adversity possess.

The main message that emerges from existing research is there is no simple causal link between poverty, parenting and poor outcomes for children. Rather it is the complex combination and interplay of personal, familial and wider social factors. The book looks at those research studies that have identified different parenting styles and shown that this variation can be found across social classes. Notwithstanding the complexities of the relationship between parenting and poverty,

Katz et al argue that rather then shaping parenting relationships, poverty acts as a stressor upon families. Poverty may induce feelings of depression and irritability among parents and it is this that impairs parenting. It is this disruption of parenting that impacts on children, rather than the direct effects of the poverty itself. However, this mechanism should not be seen in a crude deterministic manner. Crucially the resilience of both parents and their children can mitigate the effects of poverty. Good social support mechanisms from informal, semi formal and formal services can play a crucial positive role, with schools and centre-based services being identified as particularly important.

Several recent studies are identified that have looked at the impact of living in poor environments on parenting. Again the authors conclude that a similar dynamic occurred: the stress of living in such an environment, particularly in environmentally and materially poor neighbourhoods, (even those with low levels of crime) disrupted parenting and therefore affected children.

They found that most families did indeed act as a “buffer” in such adverse circumstances and that is particularly important when there is concern about the impact of “gang” culture and other problems associated especially with adolescents.

Even if it is accepted that parental and childhood resilience can mitigate against the effects of poverty on children, Katz et al argue strongly that this does not mean that those who struggle to cope should be seen as culpable, or part of a marginalised underclass. Such “cultural” theories of poverty that often emphasise trans-generational “transmission”, can pathologise families and at their worst, conjure up images of the “feckless poor”.

The authors firmly reject the “business” model of parenting. That is, that parenting is a role of which individuals can either make a success or failure, in the same way they might in a commercial enterprise. They argue that it is unhelpful to think in terms of choice and instead necessary to recognise that other stressors such as racism, parental ill-health, or the presence of a disabled child in the family can exacerbate pressures of poverty.

In particular the authors argue that blaming families, for in effect failing to lift themselves out of poverty, ignores the gender dynamics in families and such blame can especially impact on women. They also argue that this perspective fails to take account of the resources and power available to the middle classes, which enables them to make choices and take action in relation for example, to issues such as their children’s education.

James Blewett is co-ordinator of the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, Kings College London

Links and resources

● This research review was one of several reviews that looked more broadly at parenting. The others covered parenting and resilience, parenting and outcomes for children, father and fatherhood, ethnicity and parenting, children’s views of parenting and barriers to inclusion.
● David Utting has written a good overview of all seven studies entitled Parenting and the Different Ways it can Affect Children’s Lives: Research Evidence. This, and the individual studies are available at ‘910″>’www.jrf.org.uk/bookshop/details.asp?pubID=910  
● The national evaluation of Sure Start, which has been the biggest initiative in the UK that has aimed to address social exclusion among families. The national evaluation of this project has some useful reports that explore its effectiveness. For further information see www.ness.bbk.ac.uk
● For essential information about poverty including New Labour’s commitment to eradicate child poverty and analysis of its progress, go to www.communitycare.co.uk/poverty


Professional values

Academic discourses such as those identified by Levitas can appear to be far removed from the reality of practice. But these ideas underpin the different perspectives professionals may take into assessments and interventions. A practitioner, will for example, approach work with a family very differently, depending on whether they believe that a family is in some way culpable
for their failure in coping with the effects of poverty, or whether they see childhood poverty as an endemic feature of our society.

Holistic assessment
The findings of Katz et al’s review of research reinforces the importance of holistic assessments and underlines how an  understanding of the environmental and social factors affecting a family are crucial to making sense of a child’s situation. But it is not enough to simply record economic status, as reflected for example, in income and housing. Practitioners need to convey an understanding of the dynamic and interplay of socio-economic factors, parenting and a child’s needs.

By understanding this dynamic professionals can understand the level of resilience in both the parents and in the child. Children should not be considered as passive subjects of family life. If sources of resilience can be identified, then families, strengths can be supported and reinforced.

Katz et al describe several studies that have shown that both poor outcomes for children, and parenting difficulties apparently exacerbated by the stress of poverty, cannot simply be addressed by raising incomes. Most welfare-to-work programmes for example, fail to sufficiently increase household incomes, and in any case issues are often more complex. That is not to say however that financial support is irrelevant. On the contrary it can be crucial but where there are other difficulties, practical assistance must be offered in combination with other forms of support.

The need for further research
A repeated theme reiterated in this research review is the limitations of the existing evidence base. Katz et al make the case for investment in longitudinal studies that would attempt to examine the complexities of the relationship between parenting and poverty, and also take on board, for example, gender and culture issues.

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