The effect of family poverty on children


Title: Living with Hardship 24/7: the diverse experiences of families in poverty in England.
Authors: Carol-Ann Hooper, Sarah Gorin, Christie Cabral and Claire Dyson.
Institution: The research was carried out by a partnership of the Frank Buttle Trust, the NSPCC and the University of York, with funding from the Big Lottery Fund.

Abstract: This newly published study looks in depth at the experience of 70 families living on a low income in both affluent and deprived neighbourhoods. Based on interviews with parents, children (aged five to 11) and professionals, the findings highlight the need for more recognition of the many ways in which poverty affects families’ lives and for a holistic approach to supporting parents and children.


The original aim of the project was to increase understanding of the known association between poverty and some forms of child maltreatment, but it was subsequently widened to look more broadly at the experiences of families living on a low income. The term “poverty” was not used in any publicity for the project, as it was anticipated (rightly) that some families would perceive this as stigmatising or not identify themselves as “poor”. Nevertheless, by the definitions of poverty most commonly used in the UK – either being in receipt of means-tested benefits or with below 60% of median income before housing costs – almost all the households interviewed were poor.

The families participating in this study were not a random selection of those on low incomes. Other research, such as that by Deborah Ghate and Neal Hazel on “parenting in poor environments”, which included a survey of over 1,750 parents from the 30% poorest areas in the UK (see links and resources), provides a more representative picture of the stresses and strains of parenting on a low income and how families cope. Ghate and Hazel found that nearly half of such families felt they were generally “coping well”, despite the difficult circumstances under which most lived.

The 70 families interviewed for the Living with Hardship study were chosen because they were experiencing difficulties. Most had previously been in contact with social services, and almost one in six had experience of children being placed on the child protection register. Nevertheless, there are features of this report which make it valuable reading. It aimed to cover families living in hardship in a range of circumstances (in affluent and deprived areas, and from different ethnic backgrounds). It included children’s views, and explored parents’ life histories and current situations.

Child poverty is high on the political agenda. Gordon Brown (who wrote the foreword to this study report) has pledged to end child poverty by 2020, and a new cross-departmental Child Poverty Unit has been announced in response to the slow progress made so far towards achieving this target. There is evidence that children who grow up in poverty are at risk of a wide range of adverse experiences, and that their disadvantage can persist into adult life (Feinstein and others, 2007).

A recent analysis for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation of UK poverty and wealth found that over the past 15 years, more households have become poor, although fewer are very poor. Areas that are already wealthy have become disproportionally wealthier and there is evidence of more polarisation, whereby rich and poor now live further apart (JRF 2007). Understanding poverty’s impact on families, and poverty in the context of affluence, is an important aim.


The families interviewed had a wide range of experiences, strengths and difficulties. Each had an individual history and story to tell, and the study warns against viewing low income (or “high risk” or “problem”) families as a homogenous group who can be identified and targeted for interventions.

Many experiences of hardship were common across the different contexts, but there were also important differences in the challenges families faced. Families in deprived areas had worse housing conditions and greater worries about crime and unsafe neighbourhoods, and some children experienced the stress of a more violent local culture within the community or at school. Families on low incomes in affluent areas, on the other hand, had less access to affordable activities for children and other amenities, and children’s experiences of bullying were often clearly related to poverty.

Stigma associated with poverty was widespread and contributed to families’ isolation. It was particularly associated with poverty for families living in affluent areas. Many parents found it very hard to ask for help, and both parents and professionals did not always know about available local services. Once in poverty, climbing out could seem impossible. More than one in 10 of the families was paying between 60% and 70% of their weekly income in debt repayments. Where available, relatives – especially grandparents – could be an important source of support both financially and emotionally, but nearly half the children had no grandparents in their social networks.

There were high levels of stress among parents living on low incomes. Families often faced a range of other problems, including childhood maltreatment, domestic violence, relationship breakdown, bereavement and mental health problems. Poverty made all other forms of adversity more difficult to cope with, by restricting options for help, relief from responsibility or distractions. Parents reported a high level of behaviour problems among children, especially boys, and this could be exacerbated by overcrowded or poor housing.

When asked about their experiences of services, parents valued people who listened to them, treated them with respect, were sensitive to their circumstances and showed them care when they needed it. Continuity of relationships was particularly valued, and loss of a trusted worker was a key source of disappointment with services. GPs were more commonly used for support than either social workers or health visitors, and were highly valued for knowing the parent and family well. Within schools, communication was central to how parents experienced them. Inability to afford extras such as school trips meant children could be excluded from valuable opportunities. Some parents felt humiliated by this, especially those living in affluent areas. Parents easily felt intimidated in schools and found advocacy support helpful when conflicts arose.

A particularly disturbing finding was the impact of family poverty on children’s emotional well-being. Even very young children were shown to worry about the family’s financial situation, and to hide their own needs so as not to distress their parents further. Clearly, poverty makes the achievement of a “good childhood” much more difficult.

June Statham is professor of education and family support at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.,


● The full report: CA Hooper, S Gorin, C Cabral and C Dyson, Living with hardship 24/7: the diverse experiences of families in poverty in England, York Publishing, 2007, is available to download from The Frank Buttle Website

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published several summaries in its Findings series from studies commissioned as part of a parenting research initiative. Particularly relevant are Parenting and Children’s Resilience in Disadvantaged Communities (February 2006, ref 0096), Parenting in multi-racial Britain (July 2006, ref 0396) and What Makes Parenting Programmes Work in Disadvantaged Areas? (July 2006, ref 0386).

● The Unicef report Child Poverty in Perspective: an overview of child well-being in rich countries rated children’s well-being as worse in the UK than other rich countries, with UK children experiencing some of the worst levels of poverty.

● CSCI (2006) Supporting Parents, Safeguarding Children: meeting the needs of parents with children on the child protection register.

● Feinstein L, Hearn B, and Renton Z (2007) Reducing Inequalities: realising the talents of all, NCB

Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2007) Poverty and Wealth Across Britain 1968 to 2005. 

● Ghate D and Hazel N (2003) Parenting in Poor Environments: stress, support and coping. A summary of key findings is at


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