Chris Goulden from JRF has written previously about ‘the relentless rise of in-work poverty’ and it’s a phrase we use a lot when presenting to people about some of the issues to be addressed when tackling poverty.
Another issue which has seen an interesting increase since the turn of the century, and especially of late, is the percentage of couples with children who are living in poverty. Table 4.6ts on page 125 of the latest HBAI release (clicking on the table below helps to view it better) shows that the % of ‘coupled’ families accounted for 71% of all families with children living in poverty with lone parents accounting for just 29% of families with children living in poverty. In 1999/2000 the percentage of coupled families living in poverty was 57% and stayed around the figure for the next five years or so, rising steadily since then, with big increases seen in each of the last two HBAI releases. On the other hand, the percentage of children living in poverty with lone parents has dropped from a high of around 43% in 1999/2000 to a current level of around 29%, again with sharp movements (downwards this time) in each of the last two releases.
Now, I don’t want to engage in any ‘spontaenous sociology’ here so I’m not going to make any grand claims about why this is. I’m not denying that Britain has a relatively high level of relationship breakdown when compared with some other countries, as this report shows. Nor am I suggesting that couples living together suffer some kind of financial ‘penalty’ which needs to be addressed and I’m also aware that relationship status, like poverty, is dynamic and not a static classification. I just think it’s interesting and worthy of more attention, especially in light of narratives about ‘dysfunctional families’, ‘family breakdown’ and ‘dadlessness’ that we hear so often when ‘root causes’ of poverty are discussed.
For example, Samatha Callan of the Centre for Social Justice argued in The Times last week that ‘Strong families should lead the war on poverty’ and she noted that:
Almost a decade of research at the Centre for Social Justice has confirmed beyond doubt that family breakdown lies at the heart of today’s poverty and inequality. Most people working in schools, hospitals and other frontline jobs don’t need to crunch the numbers, however. (my emphasis)
It would appear that the CSJ themselves felt no need to ‘crunch the numbers’ as she puts it – or indeed look at them. In short, the figures suggest that factors beyond the ‘strength’ of the family might be worth concentrating on a little bit more. Christian Guy, the Director of CSJ recently admitted that they had ‘missed in-work poverty’, for example.
Eleanor Rathbone, in 1913, suggested that “it is hard for a woman to be an efficient housewife and parent while she is living under conditions of extreme poverty … The astonishing thing to us is not that so many women fail to grapple with the problem successfully but that any succeed”. We could perhaps paraphrase this to reflect a similar view of families – it shouldn’t surprise us if some families do split up under the weight of poverty, but what is more surprising is the very high number who stick together through these times.
This view, supported by some evidence, might help to develop a more positive narrative around the role of families, parenting and poverty.