The event was designed to feed in to the government’s consultation on child poverty (now closed) around which, as the Guardian highlighted last week, there has been a degree of tension. The idea that Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, should be credited with a ‘theory that other factors aside from money caused poverty’ is odd. Apparently he is challenging ‘the tired arguments that poverty was about income alone,’ but no-one I have spoken to knows where to find those arguments.
Obviously the question is not whether there are other factors, but how they are emphasised. You’d only ask ‘is child poverty about money or not?’ if you had a pitifully weak grasp of what it is. Of course it’s about money. It's also about of lot of other things – like access to transport, health inequalities, network poverty, lack of cultural capital, environmental poverty, poverty of opportunity and so on - which are exacerbated by lack of money. Perhaps also it still needs to be pointed out that wide wealth inequalities are wasteful and have all sorts of negative human and social consequences, which are expensive.
Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of evidenced support in our event for the government’s idea that family stability is a key factor.
Except, wait. There was one feature of the lives of participants in the event which could strongly affect family stability, and which kept coming up: death. It was surprising how frequently death was mentioned - of someone known to the participant or in the fictionalised scenarios they developed collectively. It may be that we helped to create an environment which allowed this theme to emerge more easily than it does in other contexts, I don’t know, but it was striking. Death in poor families can be particularly devastating in both emotional and economic terms, the more so if young people are dealing with unusual frequencies of death among relatives and family friends.
Ah yes wait, I’m forgetting, there was something else that impacts on family stability, which kept coming up: imprisonment. The realities of someone they knew being imprisoned were clearly not too far away from the day to day lives of these young people to be dismissed. And some were acutely aware of the obstacles to rebuilding their lives that anyone could expect to be presented after a sentence has been served. There seemed to be genuine fear of the very idea of prison as a dead end to be avoided.
Less obvious as a factor having an indirect impact on family stability were the numerous remarks about transition stages – especially the moment of leaving care, which can be far too abrupt for many young people, due simply to inadequate levels of support (this is an example, one among several that we heard, of service poverty). One young man described how, at the age of 18, he felt ‘like a ball being kicked off the park’.
So I’m starting to come round to the view that family stability does offer a way of gaining closer understanding of child poverty, although not so much as a causal factor. It may be that it is a sub-theme which usefully helps us focus on a number of influential poverties; like health inequalities, service poverty, low cultural capital and poverty of opportunity.