Measuring poverty: parental and family relationships are key: by Dr Samantha Callan

This week’s Autumn Statement will focus attention on benefits: the Chancellor has already called for additional cuts of £10.5 billion. Is the welfare state providing an adequate safety net for families – or is poverty about more than money?

A recently-opened consultation on measuring poverty proposes three new family-based measures: family stability, parental skills and parental health. These measures matter because they create incentives for the Government to create the conditions for improvement in these areas. That should ultimately help to address the overriding family policy problem: family breakdown.

Save the Children has claimed the welfare state is failing to provide an adequate safety net. Others are more supportive of an approach to tackling poverty that goes beyond financial assistance. The former chair of the End Child Poverty coalition, Martin Narey, refers to the ‘poverty of aspiration, education and parenting’.

While education reform is indispensable to improving social mobility, research published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society shows that only 20 per cent of variability in a pupil’s achievement is attributable to school quality. The remaining 80 per cent is explained by pupil-level factors – particularly family influence.

Despite such findings the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has highlighted the lack of a comprehensive body of family policy  – and that contradicts the Coalition’s pledge to build the most family-friendly society in the world.

Better parental leave and help for 120,000 ‘troubled families’ will be inadequate to address our eye-wateringly high levels of family breakdown.

Plots the increasing likelihood of a child not living with both their parents by the age of 15

Reproduced from HM Government, Social Justice Outcomes Framework, October 2012, available at

The scale of the issue – a neglected driver of child poverty in the UK – was recently highlighted in Understanding Society data (see Figure 1). While more than 80 per cent of new-borns live with both their birth parents, this is true for only 55 per cent of 15 year-olds. Almost half of the UK’s children will no longer be living with both their mother and father by the time they are on the cusp of adulthood.

As 92 per cent of single parent households are headed by women, father absence is a significant and neglected policy issue. One commentator has noted that by the end of childhood a youngster is considerably more likely to have a television in his room than a father living at home.

Of course the majority of children of separated parents see them both, but over a quarter no longer have contact after three years. There are practical and financial implications of being raised more or less by one parent, but those who do not know their fathers also suffer other adversities.

Children are far more likely to suffer feelings of abandonment and insecurity about their fathers’ love after family breakdown. Research on the social determinants of health shows supportive relationships are ‘health assets’ which improve children’s mental and physical health – and continue to do so as they become adults.

By measuring cortisol levels in thousands of 60 year olds, researchers at the International Centre for Life Course Studies found long-term effects of psychological stress in childhood. Parental separation was associated with higher cortisol levels and thus with a less healthy stress response several decades later in adulthood.

Quality of relationships matter, too; but it’s easy to overlook the fact that fathers’ relationships with their children are strongly influenced by how well they get on with those children’s mothers, whether or not they are still living together.

That’s why ‘full spectrum’ relationship support should be a far greater priority of the Government. This could/should include:

  • Relationship ‘tips’ at times of pressure and transition
  • E.g. when couples are preparing to be new parents, in order to raise awareness of how to cope with pressures on their ability to get along well together
  • Embedding this in ante-natal provision helps prepare people for the dip in relationship satisfaction that tends to accompany extreme fatigue and fluctuating hormones;
  • Relationship support when couples are experiencing moderate challenges and counselling to help them overcome severe difficulties;
  • Guidance and help to keep children’s best interests the main priority if parents do split up.

YouGov polling indicates that this issue exercises the public greatly: 75 per cent think fatherlessness is a serious problem. And other Government-backed research found that ninety per cent of mothers consider it ‘important’ that a child grows up living with both parents, 60 per cent consider it ‘very important’.

We should soon find out what progress is already being made: the Social Justice Cabinet Committee is measuring the proportion of families which are stable and free from breakdown, and looking at what proportion of those families have good-quality relationships.

The high levels of family breakdown in the UK suggest this is a cultural issue which needs a range of different policy levers and vocal prioritisation by Government. At the CSJ, we believe the current Government’s efforts are dwarfed by the scale and cost of the problem – and what they are doing is one of Whitehall’s best-kept secrets.

Dr Samantha Callan is Chairman in Residence for early years, family law and mental health at the Centre for Social Justice.

5 thoughts on “Measuring poverty: parental and family relationships are key: by Dr Samantha Callan”

  1. In general I think clarity is crucial in this area – see Ruth Lister’s book Poverty (2004) on the differences between concepts, definitions and measures, for example.

    It is very important when deciding what to put in a measure of poverty to be clear about what is a cause of poverty, what is a consequence and what is a correlate (or associated factor), and not to muddle one with another; and whilst someone’s situation may lead to a higher risk of poverty, whether it does so or not is in part often related to government policies and priorities.

    It is also very important to distinguish between child poverty now and the risk of adverse adult outcomes as a result of having experienced child poverty in the past (which may be labelled social mobility, and is a different issue).

    Family policy more generally, and policy on family poverty more specifically, also need to be distinguished from each other, in my view, whatever one’s views about what the priorities of family policy ought to be.

    Fran Bennett is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford within the Oxford Institute of Social Policy.

  2. I agree with Fran Bennett that there’s a risk that a measure confuses causes and impact. Headline measures of poverty should first and foremost show where families are suffering harm. Solutions that can reduce this harm clearly need to draw on underlying causes.

    A risk of the “multi-dimensional” indicator being proposed by the government is that it narrows the definition of poverty to where particular family issues are present, ignoring suffering in families where they are not. Under what circumstances, when families have very low incomes, are we willing to say that they are not in poverty? Perhaps if the period of income is very temporary, where parents have high skills that allow them to escape it quickly or where they have savings to fall back on. However, I suspect what the government has in mind would exclude a lot more people than this, especially if they select a range of indicators all of which must be present for a child to be in poverty on this measure. The government’s own evidence ( shows that a lack of material resources in childhood causes wide-ranging harm. It is therefore dangerous to start excluding from the definition any children in families on low incomes with evidence of material deprivation, whatever the cause.

    Samantha Callan is clearly correct to suggest that that there would be great benefits to the material and psychological well-being of children if family breakdown were reduced (although seven in ten children living in households with below 60 per cent median income are now in couple families). It will be interesting to see the extent to which measures being taken by the present government manage to reverse the huge change in society that has caused nearly one in four children to be in families with only one parent. It is possible that interventions such as relationship support will succeed in helping thousands of families to stay together, and this would be good news. But if, say, it reduced family breakdown by 10 per cent (which would be an unusually successful case of public initiatives affecting family behaviour), the need to help the remaining 90 per cent will not go away. This help includes direct financial support as well as help to enter the labour market, to access adequate childcare and to acquire appropriate parenting skills – all of which governments have been addressing as a priority for over a decade. Addressing family breakdown does not conflict with these responses – as long as it is not seen as an alternative.

    Donald Hirsch is Director, Centre for Research in Social Policy, Loughborough University

  3. There is a social justice outcomes framework in place in which the government has promised to measure ‘The proportion of children who have a stable family free from breakdown, and the proportion of such families that report a good- quality relationship.’

    That’s probably the best place for such a measure rather than the child poverty framework. There should be clear lines between measurement of financial hardship and ‘wider’ measures of disadvantage – not least to permit international comparisons. They can be reported together but should be measured separately.

  4. I guess one should not take the CSJ proposal at face value. Presumably, what happened is this: People at the CSJ feel strongly about family issues, and know a lot about this area, so they find it frustrating that their concerns are not part of the current poverty debate at all. So they are probably looking for some way to shift the debate towards ‘their’ topics. I can see why, but I don’t think they have chosen the right angle to do so. I’m all in favour of making the poverty debate broader, but the measurement itself should be narrow. We should not try to squeeze everything into one single indicator. Finding a half-way acceptable measure of material poverty is challenging enough. It has been tried for 100 years, and we still haven’t found a measure that everyone can agree on, so we shouldn’t try to burden poverty measurement with new tasks.

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