Without an adequate income, the best efforts of parents are undermined. John Dickie makes the case for improving family income in order to give children a decent start in life.
Our ability as parents to provide the best possible start for our children is inevitably affected by the resources, and in particular the incomes, we have at our disposal. Yet, we currently face a situation where the incomes of too many of Scotland's parents are inadequate to the task of bringing up children. One in four children (250,000) is growing up in a family whose income is officially recognised as being below the poverty line (National Statistics 2011), a poverty line that, in itself, is way below what the general public believes is needed for a minimum acceptable standard of living (Joseph Rowntree Foundation n.d.).
At the same time, political rhetoric, particularly in the UK, often seeks to blame parents' skills and behaviour for their children's poverty (Winnett 2011). UK child poverty strategy over-emphasises parenting skills, confuses the causes and consequences of poverty, and then seeks solutions to that poverty through demands for improved parenting (Department for Work and Pensions and Department for Education 2011).
Yet all the evidence (Mountney 2012) suggests that the vast majority of parents on low incomes go to extraordinary lengths to protect their children from the poverty they face, depriving themselves in order to ensure their children do not, for example, go without food or miss out on school trips. They show extraordinary resilience and possess strong coping skills (Katz et al. 2007).
But such efforts do not come without a price. Trying to bring up children on an inadequate income too often places real stress on parents, undermining their health and wellbeing, with damaging consequences for family life (Mountney 2012).
Any focus on parenting needs, therefore, to be addressed in tandem with measures to improve family income. It is vital that in Scotland, policy makers avoid the temptation of seeing parenting ability as the cause, and therefore potential solution, to the poverty so many of our children face.
Instead, our parenting strategy needs to include actions that will both support parents to protect their children from the most damaging effects of poverty and, at the same time, remove the barriers that prevent them securing the incomes they need to capitalise on the parenting skills and assets they already have.
The scale of the financial challenge facing parents is hard to underestimate. Faced with rising prices, a squeeze on wages and reduced employment opportunities, they are also being disproportionately hit by UK government tax and benefit policies. Already the Health in Pregnancy Grant, the baby element of tax credits and Sure Start Maternity Grant for second and subsequent children have disappeared. Child Benefit has been frozen, support with childcare costs cut and help with housing costs scaled back. Such cuts have not only reduced immediate income but, by reducing in-work support, have undermined parents' efforts to move back into work or increase their earnings.
Families with children were again the household type hardest hit by the most recent Chancellor's statement (autumn 2011) with the independent Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) concluding that: 'New tax and benefit measures are, on average, a takeaway from lower-income families with children, and giveaway to middle and top of income distribution households' (Joyce n.d.: slide 15).
UK government ministers point to the new Universal Credit as central to their policy to make work pay for parents and reduce child poverty. Yet analysis, again by the IFS (Brewer, Browne and Joyce 2011), suggests that whilst Universal Credit is likely to reduce the number of children in poverty, this reduction is 'more than offset' by the impact of wider changes to tax and benefits. The overall impact of these changes will be to increase the number of children living in poverty across the UK by 800,000 by 2020 - an increase clearly related to government policy not parenting ability.
The scale of these mounting financial pressures on parents requires an urgent rethink of UK tax and welfare policy. But what can be done in Scotland to help parents secure the incomes they need to parent to their full ability?
Parents need advice and information to maximise the potential income available to them; enable them to make informed choices about entering education, training and employment; and to help make work pay. Yet nearly one in six families fails to claim tax credits worth around £240m in Scotland alone (HMRC 2011: table 9) and, despite being at particular risk of poverty, less than half of disabled children receive Disability Living Allowance (Preston and Robertson 2006). Receipt of disability benefits can decrease the risk of child poverty by 14% (Adams et al. 2011).
Ensuring more parents receive welfare rights advice would help maximise their resources. There are opportunities, for example to build on the Scottish Government funded Healthier Wealthier Children model being developed by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and partners, to ensure income maximisation support is integrated into mainstream service delivery. Evaluation is already demonstrating the benefits of working together to boost the incomes of parents, and how that income helps parents overcome barriers that prevented them fulfilling their parenting potential (NHSGGC 2011).
As well as ensuring parents get the financial supports to which they are entitled, new opportunities are opening up in Scotland to improve at least some elements of that support. The UK Welfare Reform Bill devolves responsibility for replacing Council Tax Benefit, Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans and requires a rethink of how parents in Scotland access important benefits like free school meals, school clothing grants and fuel poverty programmes. If parenting support is to mean anything, it is vital that such new powers are used to protect and improve benefits, which reduce the strain on parents, and ensure they have the basic resources to support their children.
Parenting support also needs to focus on ensuring parents can access childcare and early years provision so that they can take up opportunities themselves at the same time as provide their children with quality early learning opportunities. For government in Scotland that must mean, for example, honouring the commitment to increase universal nursery provision for three and four-year-olds to 15 hours a week in every local authority area whilst maintaining the quality of that provision, as well as setting out a strategy for extending further the hours of universal provision on offer and widening the age range of children entitled to it. Furthermore, attention needs to be paid to addressing the low pay and skills issues that continue to undermine the quality of childcare and early years provision as well as assessing and acting on the evidence from across Europe (Children in Scotland 2010). This shows that countries, which have integrated childcare and early years education services with high levels of universal entitlement and a higher qualified and better paid workforce, also have the highest levels of child wellbeing.
Parents also need support to ensure their children can take full advantage of all Scotland's education system has to offer. Minimising the impact of charges for school trips and materials, providing school clothing grants that reflect the real cost of school clothing, taking steps to remove the means test for healthy school lunches and ensuring all parents feel able to engage with their children's education are all important in freeing up family budgets, removing barriers to full participation at school and reducing the attainment gap children from poorer backgrounds too often face.
More than half of children living in poverty live in families where an adult is already working (Palmer 2011), and many more families struggle to balance the demands of work with the responsibilities of parenting. Strategies to support parents must link with strategies to improve the quality of paid employment. Public and private sector employers need to tackle the low pay, insecurity, discrimination and family-unfriendly practice that too often make work an ineffective route out of poverty and undermine parenting responsibilities. Local and national government must build on the concept of a Scottish living wage and increase rates of pay at the bottom of the public sector pay scale whilst, at the same time, encourage, through for example, procurement policy and business support activity, private sector employers to pay wages on which people can actually raise families. Services that provide skills development support to parents need to be prioritised and the business benefits of flexible employment opportunities promoted.
Clearly parenting success does not solely depend on income. But without an adequate income, the efforts of parents are undermined; at best limiting what they are potentially capable of providing for their children, and at worst undermining their ability to protect their children from ill-health, educational under-achievement and long-term disadvantage. A key challenge for our new national parenting strategy is to support parents to secure the incomes they need to build on the extraordinary efforts they already make to give their children a decent start in life.
John Dickie is head of Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland. He is responsible for promoting and influencing policies and services that will contribute to eradicating child poverty in Scotland.
Adams, N., Barton, A., Johnson, G. and Matejic, P. (2011). Households below average income: an analysis of the income distribution 1994/95 - 2009/10. Department for Work and Pensions. See: http://www.gov.uk [PDF]
Brewer, M., Browne, J. and Joyce, R. (2011). Child and working-age poverty from 2010 to 2020. London: Institute for Fiscal Studies. See: http://www.ifs.org.uk [PDF]
Children in Scotland [and partners] (2010). Working for inclusion: how early childhood education and care (ECEC) and its workforce can help Europe's youngest citizens. Children in Scotland. See: http://www.childreninscotland.org.uk
Department for Work and Pensions and Department for Education (2011). A new approach to child poverty: tackling the causes of disadvantage and transforming families' lives. HM Government
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Joseph Rowntree Foundation [n.d.]. Minimum income standards. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. See: http://www.jrf.org.uk
Joyce, R. [n.d]. What does yesterday's news mean for living standards? Institute for Fiscal Studies. See: http://www.ifs.org.uk [PDF]
Katz, I., Corlyon, J., La Placa, V. and Hunter, S. (2007). The relationship between parenting and poverty. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Mountney, K. (2012). Parenting on a low income. About Families.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (2011). Healthier wealthier children case studies. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. See: http://www.nhsggc.org.uk
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Preston, G. and Robertson, M. (2006). Out of reach: benefits for disabled children. CPAG
Winnett, R. (2011). "Feckless parents would only spend extra benefits on themselves, says Iain Duncan Smith". The Telegraph Dec 1 2011. See: http://www.telegraph.co.uk
Healthier Wealthier Children. See: http://www.nhsggc.org.uk