Deep impact

Child poverty is high on the government’s agenda. In 1999, Tony
Blair announced that it was committed to eradicating child poverty
by 2020, halving it by 2010 and reducing it by one quarter by 2004.
Accordingly the government has been active in reducing social
exclusion and improving the financial lot of families. But it has
become clear that measuring and understanding poverty is highly

The Centre for Research on Families and Relationships recently
completed research for the Scottish executive exploring views and
experiences of poverty among low income families with children. The
intention was to help government develop effective policies to
eliminate child poverty within a generation. Here, we focus on the
key findings for children.

Adults in low income families tend to draw a distinction between
being on an even keel and experiencing poverty. Through this
distinction, they tend to position themselves above poverty, while
acknowledging that the quality of life that they experience remains
inadequate. Children in low income families also distance
themselves from poverty, but they tend to understand poverty to be
a more extreme condition that is far removed from their every day

How would you define poverty?

“I would say poverty’s like the people who … sleep on the
streets and things like that.”

“I think that if you’ve got a house, and you have clothes sort
of thing and you do go to school, you’re not [poor].”

However, teenagers in particular are aware of more subtle
differences among their peers. For example, parents report how
older children are not so keen to be seen shopping inside budget

“I hate going into Lidls. The weans will go ‘I’ll wait over
…’ You’re not allowed to walk about with a Lidls bag … you’ve
got to take a black bag to put their bags in.”

Some teenagers reported that not being able to afford the “right”
clothes or having the latest gadgets could lead to social
withdrawal or even get them into trouble.

What folk in the school would you tend to find walking [by]

“People who don’t have much money …”

“Ma friend cannae afford the blazer. He just has the school
jumpers, but they don’t have them any more. And our assistant head
always stops him because he’s got different jumpers on and he
cannae tell him that he cannae afford it …”

Parents spoke of going to considerable lengths to provide for their
children. This could be one of the reasons why so many children are
less aware of the intensity of poverty around them. Putting
children first is an everyday reality for parents:

“There is always this odd thing you know you really want to get
your kid. You know you really can’t afford it. You can end up
starving for a week but oh you are going to get it anyway.”

“I think mums generally give up anything so that their child would
have everything. I have sold stuff just to get more clothes for her
or to get just little bit of extra for her.”

The desire to provide for children leads many low income families
into a spiral of ever increasing debt, particularly at Christmas

If you were going to go into debt, what would you go into
debt for?

“The weans.”

“The kids.”

“Christmas presents.”

The difficulty of living on a low income has wider ramifications.
The stress of parenting on a low income creates tensions which –
despite the best intentions – are acknowledged by parents to have
an adverse impact on children’s family life.

To overcome the unexpected shortages or spiralling debt, families
and friends are often called upon to provide both moral support and
support in kind. In this way, family poverty is a broader issue
which places a collective shared burden on kin, community and

Perhaps then it is not the immediate effects of poverty – material
hardship and a lack of resources – that cause most distress to
children. Rather, there is some evidence that the true cost of
poverty for children is the knock-on effects of parents trying to
manage poverty. As the example below illustrates, the stresses on
one parent performing three part-time jobs, while the other parent
is investing much time and energy establishing a family business,
leaves a 14-year-old boy harbouring concerns for his parents’
well-being, while himself feeling neglected.

Mum: “In and out of the door passing each other isn’t it? And
saying, ‘Hi kids, bye kids’. It becomes quite stressful as well at
home. And the guilt factor. I actually had a 14 year old who had a
little weep at me a couple of weeks ago because he never saw

Dad: “He isn’t exactly getting the support he deserves either
because he has exams and she is working all the hours God sends.
And I just started my own business six months ago and I am up to my

Herein lies a potential danger in the government’s approach to
tackling child poverty through welfare to work. Poverty is a
problem that is about much more than disposable income. Without
appreciating the emotional and relationship stresses of low income
living and contemporary family life, there is a grave danger of
merely substituting one set of stresses (24/7 parenting) with
another (work-life balance management).

Although our research suggested that children do not dwell on the
ways in which a lack of income shapes their lives, poverty affects
children and its reduction is a worthy policy goal. However, there
is also clearly a need for more work with children to explore their
understanding of poverty and to fully appreciate the ways in which
it affects their lives, and the lives of their families, peers and

– See Unicef Innocenti Research Centre, A League Table of Child
Poverty in Rich Nations Innocenti Report Card No1
, Unicef,
Florence, Italy, 2000

– Research is £5 from Scottish Executive Social Research or
free from Research report
(research report)

(literature review) and
(briefing paper).

– John H McKendrick, Kathryn Backett-Milburn and Sarah
Cunningham-Burley are researchers at the Centre for Research on
Families and Relationships, University of Edinburgh e-mail website

About the research

This research, published by the Scottish executive as part of a
series on family poverty,1 involved 18 focus group
interviews with 99 children and young adults with a diversity of
work experiences, demographic profiles, experience of poverty,
minority status, geographical residence, family background and life
stage. This work built upon earlier CRFR research (The
Socio-Economic and Cultural Context of Children’s Lifestyles
and the Production of Health Variations
) which explored
children’s own accounts and experiences of inequalities and
the way in which they may affect their everyday lives. available at

1JH McKendrick, Child Poverty,
Scottish Poverty Information Unit Research Briefing 22,

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