Research: poverty, parenting and social exclusion

Families living in poverty are over-represented as users of children’s and families’ services. Parents will not always have asked for help, sometimes because they feel that it will not be forthcoming, or that they will be judged, and they may not therefore welcome intervention in their family life. However, if there are concerns about children’s welfare, families will be assessed as needing support from social services until the children’s well-being can be assured within the family.

Poverty may be defined as absolute or relative. The starting point in measuring absolute poverty is whether or not the family has the resources to provide for the basic essentials in terms of food, clothing and experiences. While the United Nations’ definition includes food, clothing and basic sanitation, the Commission on Families and the Wellbeing of Children (2005) highlighted the need for society-specific considerations of what is essential. These include television sets and mobile phones, which nowadays most people would consider as essentials, because they provide educational input, or enhanced safety.

A current definition of relative poverty is income that is below 60% of the median level of the population at that time. The use of the “median” level, the most common level of income rather than the “mean” level, meaning the overall average of all incomes, has been adopted as a way of avoiding the distortion created by a relatively small proportion of extremely high earners.

Social exclusion is “a process that deprives individuals and families, groups and neighbourhoods of the resources required for participation in the social, economic and political activity of a society as a whole” (Pierson, 2002, p7). People who are socially excluded do not have access to the same institutions, services and social support networks that most people in a society take for granted. Although poverty is usually the main cause of social exclusion, there may be other contributing factors, such as racial discrimination or low educational achievement.

Knowledge of the effect that poverty can have on the lives of children and families is vital for social workers. The fact that poverty can be a major influence on the functioning of families is now formally recognised by government in the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and Their Families. The framework emphasises the need for a thorough understanding of “the impact of wider family and environmental factors on parenting capacity and children”. The environmental factors listed are community resources the family’s social integration income employment housing wider family and family history.

Despite poverty and social exclusion being common characteristics of families involved in the child protection system and a key factor associated with children becoming looked after, there is evidence to suggest that some professionals find it difficult to understand the complex interplay between poverty, social deprivation, parental capacity and children’s welfare and development.

If practitioners are to respond properly to families they work with, they will need to be sensitive to the different aspects and implications of poverty and social exclusion on the day-to-day lives of families. Importantly, they will also need to reflect on how they as social workers make judgements about people’s circumstances and behaviour.

Research shows that some members of families who experience poverty and social exclusion feel they are discriminated against by professionals for the very reason that they are poor and socially excluded (the term “povertyism” has been used to describe this form of discrimination). This highlights the need for social workers and other professionals to be aware of the use of their power and how their actions can either increase or lessen feelings of powerlessness.

Research into the way families experience support shows that their expectations are both modest and realistic. They acknowledge that while practical help is important, inevitably many resources are likely to be limited. However, besides practical assistance, they value emotional support and personal respect both of which rest on the acknowledgement by social workers of their human dignity as individuals. Effective support can help to alleviate the psychological impact of poverty, including low self-esteem, a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.

Practitioners’ messages

● Practice points for agencies working with families who experience poverty and social exclusion:

● Families in the community should always be given the opportunity to respond to consultations about local services by social care agencies, including local authority agencies.

● New contracts for services to voluntary and community organisations should only be awarded by the local authority to agencies who can always give the opportunity to respond to consultations about local services.

● In supervision sessions managers should encourage practitioners to clarify that they have asked families for their own views.

● There should be a requirement that practitioners reflect the exact views of families when recording cases.

● There should be a requirement that any statements made about parental capacity must be balanced by accounts of a family’s social and material circumstances

● Agencies should have formal links with local parent groups or national groupings, such as ATD.

● Agencies should regularly quote briefings from organisations such as the Family and Parenting Institute (FPI) ParentlinePlus Child Action Poverty Group (CPAG).

Compiled by the Social Care Institute for Excellence

For more information visit:

SCIE’s e-learning resource: Poverty, parenting and social exclusion 


Child Poverty Action Group

Family Rights Group

The Buttle Trust

Family Welfare Association

Family and Parenting Institute


Research Abstracts: poverty and parenting

Author WELSHMAN John

Title From Transmitted Deprivation to Social exclusion: policy, poverty, and parenting

Publisher Policy Press, 2007, 304p, bibliog

Abstract John Welshman’s new book fills a major gap in social policy: the history of debates over transmitted deprivation and their relationship with current initiatives on social exclusion. The book explores the content and background to Sir Keith Joseph’s famous “cycle of deprivation” speech in 1972, examining his own personality and family background, his concern with “problem families”, and the wider policy context of the early 1970s. Tracing the direction taken by the DHSS-SSRC Research Programme on Transmitted Deprivation, it seeks to understand why the programme was set up, and why it took the direction it did. With this background, the book explores New Labour’s approach to child poverty, initiatives such as Sure Start, the influence of research on inter-generational continuities, and its stance on social exclusion.

Author CHURCHILL Harriet

Title New Labour versus lone mothers’ discourses of parental responsibility and children’s needs

Reference: Critical Policy Analysis, 1(2), 2007, pp.170-183

Abstract This article examines policy and maternal accounts of parenting in light of New Labour’s reforms aimed at reducing social exclusion among lone parent families in the UK. Drawing on documentary policy sources and in-depth interviews with welfare reliant and employed lone mothers, this article highlights convergence and divergence between policy and maternal accounts. While policy and maternal perspectives demonstrate a shared concern with good mothering, differences emerge in how responsibilities and needs are defined, prioritised and resourced. New Labour’s welfare reforms stress parental responsibilities for labour market participation, children’s educational development and children’s social behaviour with parents who do not prioritise these activities deemed problematic. However, mother’s accounts demonstrate a much more complex understanding of the risks as well as opportunities associated with paid work, education and behavioural control.

Author BARNES Jacqueline

Title Down Our Way: the relevance of neighbourhoods for parenting and child development

Publisher John Wiley, 2007, 291p, bibliog

Abstract This describes what it is like to be a parent in four different communities in England. The research data that are the basis for this description are interpreted in relation to a number of key factors, include: family social class, ethnic group, length of time on the neighbourhood and the presence of extended family locally. The book will be of interest to anyone wanting to know more about how to improve the lives of families. Special focus is placed on those families who face disadvantage, either in relation to personal vulnerabilities or in relation to living in neighbourhoods lacking in facilities.

Author POWER Anne

Title City Survivors: bringing up children in disadvantaged neighbourhoods

Publisher Policy Press, 2007, 226p, bibliog.

Abstract Seen through the eyes of parents, City Survivors tells the story of what it is like to bring up children in troubled city neighbourhoods. The book provides a unique insider view on the impact of neighbourhood conditions on family life and explores the prospects for families from the point of view of equality, integration, schools, work, community, regeneration and public services. City Survivors is based on yearly visits over seven years to two hundred families living in four highly disadvantaged city neighbourhoods.

Published in the 12 June issue of Community Care magazine under the headline Proven Practice: Poverty, Parenting and Social Exclusion

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