A reversal of misfortune: who are the poor relations now?

It is not long since many retired parents relied on their adult children for financial and practical help. Now it is the adult children who are more likely to find themselves needing help as they struggle with benefit cuts, low-paid employment and expensive childcare, while at the same time providing the government-approved 'strong and stable' family base for their children. Drawing on a review of the links between personal relationships and poverty (Joseph Rowntree Foundation) and an evaluation of relationship support interventions (Department for Education) Judy Corlyon looked at how the stress caused to family relationships can cause poverty and how intergenerational support can help combat it.

In the past, family poverty was associated with the older generation when people retired from work.  Children helped them out.  Now the situation is reversed: adult children are poor and their parents are helping them out.  Younger family members, on average, are more likely to be worse off than older ones.  Both recent UK governments have tended to protect pensioners' incomes, a bit.  In asking what would help Judy highlighted the following:

Policy changes to include:

  • Sufficient number of reasonably well-paid jobs
  • No zero-hours contracts
  • Universal credit working well and easing the transition between welfare support and  employment
  • Compassion: no harsh benefit sanctions for those depending on welfare support
  • Parental leave and childcare: mothers able to have paid work if they wish/need to

Caring for children and supporting working parents:

  • A good supply of affordable high-quality childcare
  • Different parental leave provision. Not shared and transferable as traditionally mothers take the lion's share and pay will be poor and for only 39 of the 52 weeks
  • Parental leave needs to be equal in length and payment and specific to each parent, weakening traditional emphasis on mother/carer and father/earner. Initial decisions on who works and who does childcare can affect present and future income

Parental relationships are seriously affected by money worries.  We need:

  • More relationship support: couple counselling but also preventive support for strengthening relationships. This can overcome problems, avoid some relationships ending, and better manage those that do end
  • Relationship support for first-time parents and before marriage is liked by couples and could save public money by postponing or preventing relationships ending and saving all the associated costs.  But this would involve removing the associated stigma and supporting all relationships at all stages and reaching low-income families, not just the traditionally help-seeking middle classes

Divorce rates are higher among poorer families. But poverty can also be a consequence of divorce. Women (typically) have childcare responsibilities but also reduced earning potential if previously out of the labour market and because of unreliable child maintenance payments. Fathers are slower to recover mentally and housing problems (restrictions of 'bedroom tax') plus child-related benefits are paid only to one parent (usually the mother).  Re-marriage can solve financial problems but is prone to break down.  She suggested

  • Holistic practical and emotional support for mothers, fathers and children in separating families to help alleviate poverty and adverse outcomes, especially for low-income families (as in Child Poverty Pilots)
  • This could lead to better relationships between parents - and regular child maintenance more likely to be paid. This helps lift lone mothers (resident parents) and their children out of poverty
  • Stopping charging separated parents for using the Child Maintenance Service

Grandmothers are now the main source of affordable childcare.  They are trusted.  It is wraparound so parents can work.  And it is free, so it is a common source for lone parents and those with less money.  But there is a cost to these older women as they often give up work or shorten their hours to provide childcare.  And women now have to work longer before they can receive their state pension.

However, pensioners are no longer the poor relations as reasonably generous (or at least adequate) state retirement pensions mean that adult working children do not have to support them. This also promotes a steady flow of money downwards in families - pensioners do not keep their money to themselves.  And they give even more when the state provides essential services such as bus passes and free prescriptions. So, this means that what is needed is:

  • More childcare so both mothers and grandmothers can be in paid employment if they want or need to be
  • Maintaining state pensions and pension credit at least at their current level encourages the redistribution of resources, however low, within the wider family and reduces the degree of many parents' and children's financial hardship

She concluded:

  • Work is not the route out of family poverty when employment policies and welfare benefits are uncoordinated, childcare is too expensive and families are unsupported
  • Adult children and their children are frequently rescued from the extremes of poverty by the time and money of unselfish grandparents
  • That is a pretty loving relationship
The main learning I will take away from this conference is: returning more empathy and humanity to my practice. Thinking about policies and procedures. Participant