Between A Rock And A Hard Place: Parents, Their Children And Welfare Policies

Children Social Security

What is impact of current welfare policies on parents and their children?

The Welfare Reform Act 2012 is now law and most changes are scheduled to come into force between this year and 2017 nevertheless delays are already evident because of major problems with Universal Credit. Although policies and legislation rest on the assumption that fewer children live in poverty if their parents are employed statistics show that parental employment does not protect children from poverty. It has been estimated that by 2015 almost 7m of the nation’s 13m youngsters will be living in homes with income judged to be less than the minimum necessary for a decent standard of living and 90% of families will be worse off in 2015 than 2010[i].

Employers are reluctant to offer hours that fit school timetables, term times or additional closures let alone offer workplace flexibility to respond to a child’s illness or other needs. In addition the cost, availability and quality of childcare for children and after school care for older children whilst parents work acts as a barrier to employment and it’s even more difficult for those working at weekends or evenings to find suitable childcare.UK parents also pay substantially more than their EU counterparts for childcare. Being a lone parent of young children is no longer an exemption from job seeking. From when their youngest child is five-years-old lone parents have to be in paid work for a minimum of 16 hours or actively demonstrate they are seeking employment. Proposals under Universal Credit mean that from when the youngest child is aged 1 some conditionality will be attached to benefits such a attending ‘work readiness’ schemes. Non attendance could trigger benefit sanctions.  Although current regulations are supposed to protect lone parents from sanctions if they can’t find childcare or need to work school hours these exemptions are being weakened and in any case Gingerbread already receive frequent calls from lone parents wrongly sanctioned. Indeed foodbanks’ report that a high percentage of requests arise because of delays in benefit payments or wrongly applied sanctions. So parents are caught between the rock of reduced benefits and sanctions and the hard place of low-paid employment and inadequate child care.

What are their consequences for children of parents under stress?

Harm for children in a family context has to be understood as a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum are extreme and prolonged harms, often leading to death, that are indicative of a total de-personalisation of a child but these are rare. At the other end of the spectrum serious harms can be caused to a child as a result of situational stressors – harms that are unlikely to reoccur if the stressors are removed as the relationship between child and parent is basically connected and loving. In fact in the UK child deaths from abuse have remained remarkably static for the last 30 years. While annual statistics fluctuate a little, the longer-term pattern has been fairly stable at 100 to 150 child deaths per year from cruelty.

We are now seeing, however, an increase in harms caused to children by neglect. A recent report of research commissioned by the NSPCC (2013)[ii] into serious harms caused by neglect reveals that in the 139 Serious Case Reviews (the mandatory inquiries into child death caused by abuse) in 2009-11, 60% involved neglect. This same period, of course, coincides with the economic crisis affecting the UK and indeed the correlation between child poverty and child welfare is well understood. The NSPCC report acknowledges that even if parents have a good relationship with their children without a safe living environment children are not safe.

The appalling death by starvation of Hamzah Khan in Bradford has stimulated much political outrage yet statutory and third sector organisations in the city have revealed that levels of child poverty there are unacceptably high, many children are underweight and do not eat three meals a day and as a result there is a frightening increase in foodbank referrals. Academics at the University of Liverpool and local authority colleagues recently published a letter in the British Medical Journal drawing attention to the fact that the number of malnutrition related admissions to hospital in England has doubled since 2008-9. They also quote figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies which indicate a decrease in calories purchased and substitution with unhealthier foods, especially in families with young children. Alongside the well documented rise in foodbank referrals they argue there will be a major public health emergency without immediate, preventative action:

Access to an adequate food supply is the most basic of human needs and rights. We should not allow food poverty in the UK to be the next public health emergency.

As a society we are facing a moral cross-road regarding the future of all of our children. We have little time left in which to decide whether, on the one hand, to take collective responsibility for their environments or whether, on the other, to regard parents as solely responsible. The consequences of child poverty carry a social and economic cost far into the future and cannot be ameliorated by parents or professionals alone – life environments are fundamentally affected by the social context in which they occur.  As the 2012 unicef report[iii] summarises powerfully:

Because children have only one opportunity to develop normally in mind and body, the commitment to protection from poverty must be upheld in good times and in bad. A society that fails to maintain that commitment, even in difficult economic times, is a society that is failing its most vulnerable citizens and storing up intractable social and economic problems

[i] Reed, H.,/Landman Economics (2013) A bleak future for families, TUC: London, UK

[ii] NSPCC (2013) Neglect and Serious Case Reviews A report from the University of East Anglia commissioned by NSPCC, Marian Brandon, Sue Bailey, Pippa Belderson and Birgit Larsson, University of East Anglia/NSPCC

[iii] United Nation Children’s Fund (UNICEF) (2012) Measuring Child Poverty: New league tables of child poverty in rich countries. Florence: Innocenti Research Centre