Intergenerational poverty – myth or reality

By Julie Nelson

Thursday 4 July 2013

I recently presented at a conference on child poverty. During discussions a delegate posed the question: “Why have we discussed reform of the welfare system, strategies to get adults into work and the implications of Universal Credit for adult incomes, but we have somehow managed not to talk about children?”

The answer, of course, is that child poverty is inextricably linked to adult wealth, health and wellbeing – children are rarely poor if they do not live within a poor family. The delegate made a good point, however. All too often children, who are the passive recipients of their circumstances, are overlooked in policy formation. Increasingly, perceived inadequacies on the part of their parents are presented as a rationale for reducing family welfare entitlements. This penalises parents, but it also penalises families and, critically, children…And the implications for children of growing up in poverty are well known.

At the heart of the government’s Child Poverty Strategy is a ‘new approach’ to tackling child poverty, which focuses on adults taking personal responsibility for their circumstances. In his introduction to the strategy, Iain Duncan Smith comments: “This Government believes that when an individual finds and takes work the system should reward them… with a focus on fairness and personal responsibility, not cash handouts.”

At one level this is a laudable ambition. It is a terrible waste of talent, and hardly in the interests of our economy, for adults with the capacity to work and with relevant skills not to be employed. However, the search for employment can be frustrating and many families face poverty, not as a result of an unwillingness to work or a lack of skills on the part of parents, but as a result of economic circumstances and limited opportunity.

Tracy Shildrick and colleagues at Teesside University have found that adults living in poor communities often take poorly paid or unstable employment (rather than claiming welfare) as a result of pride and a desire to work.

My concern is that the government’s child poverty reforms are less about providing families with opportunities to improve their circumstances than they are about blaming parents for their circumstances in order to justify a programme of welfare reform and budget cuts (the latest of which were announced by the Chancellor in his Comprehensive Spending Review last week). The child poverty strategy is based on a premise that poverty is behavioural and that parents with a ‘culture’ of welfare dependency pass these traits on to their children, so that poverty becomes ‘intergenerational’. As Iain Duncan Smith states: “We want to break the cycle of deprivation too often passed from one generation to another.”

This concept of intergenerational poverty is not new. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Sir Keith Joseph commissioned research to assess the causes of poverty. While he found no simple explanation of deprivation, he went on to argue that in a proportion of cases, the problems of one generation appeared to replicate themselves in the next. In his model, which continues to be espoused in some current policymaking, poverty is viewed as an attribute (and those that perpetuate it as a cause of societal problems) rather than as a consequence of socio-economic inequality.

NFER has produced a review of literature exploring the concept of intergenerational poverty, which has just been published by the Office of the First Minister/Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland. Critically, our main finding is that the concept is more imagined than real. Many of the reviewed authors rebut the notion of intergenerational poverty, doing so on the basis of: the concept itself; and evidence of its existence.

The concept:

The term intergenerational poverty assumes that the nuclear family has a large impact on a child’s developing behaviour and dispositions, although in many instances, children learn and are influenced by a much wider range of individuals. Additionally, there is little good evidence showing that parental actions (such as being employed) have strong causal effects on their children’s long-term economic success.

Additionally, research shows that poor parents often have high aspirations for their children, and that their children often have high aspirations for themselves. What often happens is that a variety of structural barriers and inequalities prevent the realisation of these aspirations in practice. Similarly, research demonstrates that there is no shortage of work ethic among poor young people, who are often spurred on to achieve because of the difficult circumstances in which they see their parents having to manage.

The reality:

Recent research investigated the prevalence of intergenerational poverty in highly deprived communities in Glasgow and Middlesbrough. Despite ‘deep searching’ with the help of practitioners, researchers were unable to identify any families in which nobody had worked for three or more generations.

In response they ‘relaxed’ their criteria to focus on families in which two generations of some members of the same family had never experienced work. Even then, families were incredibly difficult to locate and were found to be ‘atypical’ of working class families in general. The point is that the proportion of families in which worklessness is a ‘way of life’ is so small as to be an inappropriate basis for policy formation.

Our review has found little evidence of the existence of intergenerational poverty, and much evidence that the concept is flawed. It is regrettable that those responsible for recent welfare reforms and for the development of the Child Poverty Strategy have paid so little attention to the evidence base relating to the existence of intergenerational poverty, or to the concept of a ‘culture’ of worklessness. Our evidence suggests that, at the very least, policymakers should give equal consideration to the structural factors that underpin persistent poverty in the UK. They should also remember that a child poverty strategy should protect children from the life disadvantages of growing up in poverty, as well as penalising their parents.