Bringing up children to survive in the city

The Research

Title: City Survivors: Bringing up children in disadvantaged neighbourhoods

Author: Anne Power

Institution: Anne Power is professor of social policy at the LSE. She is also sustainable development commissioner responsible for regeneration and sustainable communities

Available: This research is published as a book, City Survivors: Bringing up children in disadvantaged neighbourhoods published by Policy Press in 2007. ISBN 978 1 84742 7


The campaign End Child Poverty has in recent weeks highlighted the enduring high levels of child poverty in the UK and the consequences that this has in terms of social exclusion. Tackling the effects of social exclusion has been at the heart of the current government’s social and welfare policies over the past decade.

However in reality it has been a major and contested theme in social policy for well over 150 years. Policy makers and politicians have vigorously debated the role of the state in addressing this issue but there has been a broad consensus that poverty and the life-limiting opportunities associated with it have a major impact on family life in general and more specifically on the outcomes and experience of children and their parents.

Within this discussion has been a recognition that there are some neighbourhoods in which not only significantly greater numbers of socially excluded families live but also that these neighbourhoods themselves can exacerbate those difficulties. The government has attempted to address this at a cross-departmental level, realising that both the causes of social exclusion and any potential solutions are not only elusive but complex and often involve a number of inter-related factors. Despite the prominence this issue has had, the processes which lead to families experiencing social exclusion – and indeed the degree to which it impacts on different aspects of their lives – are not sufficiently understood.

Anne Power’s book is based on some of the findings of a large-scale longitudinal research study that makes an important contribution to the process of understanding the dynamics between individual families’ lives and the neighbourhoods in which they live. The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Nuffield Foundation and supported by the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion at the LSE.

This study sought to address three central questions:

● Do neighbourhood conditions of themselves make it difficult for families to bring up children in cities?

● Do informal social links that families create provide protection, security, friendship, trust and mutual support in an atmosphere of rapid social change?

● How can the wider city meet family and community needs in poor areas, given the central role of families in the city as a whole?


The research was based on 60,000 answers to 300 questions put to 200 families over the course of five interviews that took place with each family between 1998 and 2004. Half of the families lived in east London while the other half lived in urban areas in northern England. Care was taken to select families that reflected the local populations with half being lone parents, half in work and nearly half coming from a minority ethnic background.

The questions covered issues within the family such as relationships between members of the immediate family, but also looked at the wider family and neighbourhood relations. Issues such as policing, regeneration, race relations, housing and child care were explored.

At each meeting there was an attempt to measure changes both in families and in environmental factors. The researchers asked families about their perceptions of the negative and positive aspects of their community and whether they were happy living in their neighbourhood. They wanted to ascertain whether families were planning, and/or felt able, to move.

This publication focuses on the stories of 24 of the 200 families. Each of the six chapters focuses on four families, giving a detailed account of their circumstances and of their views through the extensive use of quotes. The result is a rich source of information and insights that contain many valuable lessons for practitioners working with children and families in these neighbourhoods.


The strength of this research is that it does not attempt to offer glib or simplistic answers to complex problems. What is very striking is the overall and very powerful message from the 24 case studies that poverty and the wider processes of social exclusion have a profound and multi-dimensional impact on family life.

Bringing up children in a disadvantaged neighbourhood is a real struggle for many families. Not only are many parents attempting to raise children with few material resources including inadequate incomes and housing, but also they are doing so in a pressurised environment from which they often have to protect their children.

Many older people, the research argues, respond to these stressors in their areas by staying in and avoiding social contact. Families do not have that option. Enabling a child to integrate through either school or play is an important part of parenting. At a time when there is much publicity about violent crime, including gang and gun-related crime, this study highlights the stress of the more mundane, lower level pressures that come from living in a materially and economically degraded environment.

Nevertheless this study does attempt to strike a balance. There is a recognition that while disadvantaged neighbourhoods can be a source of threat and danger, they should certainly not be demonised. Many of the 24 families reflect the views of the wider sample of 200 families that identify their neighbourhood as a major source of resilience in their lives. Services and individual practitioners need to recognise this ambivalence, as community networks can be an important source of support.

Another message that emerged from this study is that very often the populations of these neighbourhoods are unstable in the sense that those who are able to move out often do. This can lead to levels of insecurity and in some cases hostility toward newcomers. A particularly powerful chapter focuses on the experiences of families who have recently moved into these neighbourhoods.

The authors expected to identify significant cultural and social differences between the families in London and the north of England. Interestingly, however, while some of the London communities had a higher turnover of population, the overall experiences of families in both cohorts were remarkably similar.

The research concludes by reiterating the difficulty of parenting in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but argues that these neighbourhoods are crucial for the health of cities. All too often the media simply depict them as sources of social problems. These neighbourhoods, however, provide the low waged workers on whom city economies are dependent. Power argues that in order for neighbourhoods to function well they need families who are “cells in the body” of these areas. Effective family support therefore has a social and economic value beyond merely assisting individual families with difficulties in their lives.

Practice implications

The role of integrated services based on early intervention. This study highlights the interlocking and multifaceted problems that families face when living in disadvantaged communities. It therefore supports the case for well-coordinated and integrated services that can meet families’ social, educational, health and practical needs. It also highlights the fact that most of the families who live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods have no contact with the more specialist services and therefore supports the case for lower level services based on early intervention.

The importance of the ecological approach. For those families who do need specialist help and come into contact with social workers and other social care professionals this study reinforces the importance of the ecological approach. Living in poverty has far more complex and far-reaching consequences than children and their families not having sufficient income, as fundamental as that is. If professionals are to carry out effective assessments they need to understand all of the interrelated consequences of social exclusion.

Recognising the additional pressures faced by families from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. This study also highlights the importance of recognising the specific and additional difficulties faced by families from black and minority ethnic groups. As well as being disproportionately over-represented among poor families they often face the additional difficulties and pressures of hostility and racism from other sections of the community.

Promoting community as well as individual resilience. The importance of the ecological approach to assessment however goes further than identifying problems in families’ lives that result from social exclusion. It is also about identifying sources of resilience. As well as this being important at an individual family level, services need to be orientated towards promoting wider community resilience. This has implications for children’s centres and other community-based resources which can work with wider groups as well as individual families.

Links and Resources

End Child Poverty is a powerful alliance of voluntary sector organisations, trade unions and faith groups, which has been established to highlight and campaign against the effects of child poverty in the UK.  

Another useful and highly relevant large scale study which was carried out in the UK was Parenting in Poor Environments by Deborah Ghate and Neal Hazel . Jessica Kingsley (2002)

The Child Poverty Action Group is one of the most longstanding groups that have worked to address child poverty.

The government has made addressing social exclusion a cross-departmental priority. An overview of the government’s strategy can be found at the Social Exclusion Task Force .

The campaigning and service user lead group ATD Fourth World also provides a helpful website. 

James Blewett is research director at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College London and national chair of Making Research Count

This article is published in the 4 September edition of Community Care under the headline “Bringing up children to survive in the city”

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