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Causes and consequences of childhood poverty

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Anyone doing background research into the causes of child poverty will soon learn that parental income is only one of a large network of interrelated factors. To name a few; political, communal, environmental, and societal influences all play a role. As an example consider that; with the ever progressive move from a widespread agricultural, to a more localised industrial society, the number of jobs in many areas has decreased severely. And so the average number of “non-educated” workmen (or women) has subsequently decreased also. More and more Britain’s are joining the ranks of the poor each day (roughly 2,000). And with parents out of work and not earning, children will suffer as a result. Every day 1 in every 4 children is born into poverty. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1995)

This can lead to a number of consequences in children, which follows with them throughout adolescence and into adulthood. For example, children who grow up in families with a low income are more likely to experience mental health problems, and more likely to develop unhealthily.

Greg Duncan found associations between poverty and poor health, cognitive development, behaviour, emotional well being and academic achievement.

He also found that pregnant mothers who have insufficient resources such as food and warmth are 1.7 times more likely to give birth to a low weight baby, that child is then 2 times more likely to drop out of school, and 3.1 times more likely have an out of wed-lock birth (Duncan 1997).

Although short term poverty can be overcome and the effects are reversible, long term poverty can be destructive on a child’s life. Duncan found that children who had experienced 4-5 years of their early years of life in poverty, achieved a full 9 year decline on intelligence test scores compared to children from healthy backgrounds (Duncan 1997).

The standards of living associated with children from poor families can have a negative effect on their health. For example, they are more vulnerable to asthma due to poor ventilation, as well as pneumonia due to poor insulation. Interestingly, they are also more vulnerable to developing obesity since a high carbohydrate, processed diet is the cheaper option.

Those children are often excluded from participating in social activities, through both financial disadvantages as well as feeling the pressure of social stigma – which can develop from having to dress inappropriately, or through receiving charity food, books, furniture and other necessities. It leads to a loss of self esteem, can be de-motivating, leads to less elevation after the simplest of pleasures, and poor ability to cope with stressful situations. Not only are they more likely to develop psychological problems as a result, these effects last longer than in those who are well off. And this leads to a vicious cycle of depression, leading to increased likelihood of a stressful event, leading to further depression.

In Novak’s (1995) view, this can lead to long term, irreversible changes in personality, such as; self defeatist attitudes, hopelessness, helplessness, low motivation, low drive, bitterness, aggressiveness and anti social personality disorder. Children with the latter are seen to be impulsive, have high sensation seeking, but without sense of morals or justice. It is often associated with young offenders, school drop outs, and those serving long term sentences. For these reasons, it is necessary for social workers; to get into family homes, assess their state of living, their needs, risk factors, problems, difficulties and anything else that is helpful for them to make an accurate evaluation, and to give them a better understanding. Late interventions can be damaging, for the longer things are kept untreated the harder they are to change. It is important that children are given opportunities in life to maximise their potential and make a contribution to society. Without the proper guidance and support, they are likely to sink further and further. So it is clear that help is required.

There has long been argument that to tackle poverty, social work (SW) would do best to “position itself in and against the state. Workers are known to follow law, policy, the rules and regulations of agencies etc, whilst at the same time assuming a flexible role in relation to the safeguarding and supporting of individuals and families”. (Bailey and Brake, 1975; Corrigan and Leonard, 1978; Bolger et al., 1981; Becker and MacPherson, 1988; Adams et al., 1998)

Childhood poverty holds great relevance for social workers for it defines their very existence. If the role of social workers is to promote well being in the community, and to help young individuals achieve their potential and to function in society, then those in poverty will be the people who need help most.

The Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey (PSE Survey, Joseph Rowntree Foundation 1999), which collected a number of individuals portraying an average society, found that 28% of the population were in poverty. Each of them were presented with 52 cards, each revealing an object or activity, such as central heating, a computer, going to the cinema. They were instructed to form two piles; one for items they believed were vital for living, the other for those which were not. For all those items where the majority voted them to be vital, researchers concluded that every person should have at least these in their lives. Social workers may use this as a base line when assessing families, and when children lack any (or all) of these so called necessities (i.e. are in poverty) then help should be provided; for without it, children will likely grow up depressed, suicidal or conversely, aggressive and violent.

Children are vulnerable to feelings of hopelessness due to this lack of necessities.A build up of long term worries accompanying a loss of control combined with a sense of dependence, is likely to lead to distress. Chronic anxiety and even depression is not uncommon, which can be exacerbated by an oppressive society.

Children from poorer backgrounds are well recognised as they are the ones who do not go on school trips, may dress differently to the rest, not have the correct equipment in lessons, have a more definable smell (not a pleasant one) etc. For those who spend time with such children it is likely they will be excluded from social groups as a result; for they become associated with the outsider and so they themselves are now too an outsider. Society recognises and treats differently any person (adults too) who stands out for whatever reason good or bad. Of course they are no different from the next person; however it is because others see them as different that they are made to feel paranoid. Paranoid that wherever they are people are staring at them, talking about them, thinking all sorts of thoughts. It is enough to cause any child, adult, man or woman huge distress and can affect their ability to be trusting around complete strangers.

Constantly obsessing over one’s situation will inevitably drain a child of their strength and make them feel weak, which subsequently will increase the level of stress felt. Here can be seen a vicious cycle, one which is hard to recover from without the appropriate help.

Furthermore, it is often the case that parents are made to feel just as bad, if not worse. The negativity that radiates off of a child is bound to have implications, especially when he/she cannot have things that all their friends can. Parents have failed as providers and this can lead to a loss of motivation and of despair.

So, childhood poverty causes a “knock on effect” for the rest of the family, and therefore makes it more probable they will seek social service’s aid. For example, schoolyard bullying can decrease a child’s self esteem and affect their ability to form secure, long term relationships. This can lead to turmoil between parents and children, for parents will feel they have lost family connections. As a result, they become depressed and will seek guidance in parenting techniques.

Another example would be a child whose parent cannot afford to buy them nice things such as clothes, toys or school equipment. Daily exposure to those who do have such possessions is likely to cause the child jealousy and envy; both at those children who take luxuries for granted, and also at their parents for not being able to provide. Because of the psychological issues that this can lead to, it is likely the child grows up with a desire to steal, spawned from a lifetime of unfulfilment. If they however, grow up with certain morals and choose not to steal, it is still possible that they resort to drugs/and or alcohol as a means of coping. Coping with the consuming hatred and loathe of society that has become them.

Families in poverty are less able to provide for themselves, and so there is large chance that children will have to be taken away into care. Thus, a great deal of social worker’s time is spent “within and around those in poverty” (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1995; Becker 1997; Smale et. al. 2000; Social Exclusion Unit, 2004).

Childhood poverty can lead to severe ramifications, both physical and mental, some of which people recover from in time while others can be long lasting. It is considered the universal belief poverty is as much a cause as well as an effect of mental health problems (Langner & Michael, 1963). Evidence for this comes from impoverished families from lower class areas. Not only are these areas receiving low government funding they also have little support from neighbouring councils; research shows that these areas have the largest number of children with mental health problems (Department of Health, 1999b).

It is clear that the linearity between poverty and wellbeing is long winded. Two possible theories however have met support, both social causation (‘breeder’) (SC) and social selection (‘drift’) (SS).

SS describes how the accumulation of adolescents suffering mental issues, who live in poor areas, is the result of a continuous drifting towards the lower spectrum of education and while losing contact with social networks. In contrast, SC describes how a neglected socio-economic climate can have negative consequences on childhood well being to start with.

From this it is to be concluded that: poor children have lifelong experience living in high risk areas, risk defined as: high chance of unemployment, growing up to rely on benefits, of teenage pregnancies, families separated, crime, street violence, rape, vandalism, malnutrition, obesity etc. Those at high risk are more likely to experience mental problems because their minds are already overburdened with every day worry. Furthermore, those at high risk are less likely to be treated for their illness because the local medical facilities are of low quality, have fewer staff and are constantly over worked. Child poverty therefore starts within neglected communities and leads to a number of psychological issues. A further difficulty is that the increase in mentally disturbed individuals can further exacerbate the ability to cope in others. That is, exposure to stressors causes stress, therefore numbers are constantly rising.

There is large evidence for a correlation between low income and lack of support, and increased probability of contracting mood disorder. According to SC, the most contributory factor is the mental strain which results from all those issues associated with poverty so far mentioned, for example misfortune or wretchedness, death or separation within the family. “While SS explains those born with a predisposition towards developing mood disorders will drift to such low stances, and be unable to crawl back upwards” (Jarvis, 1971).

Researchers found that when children were taken from their homes and placed into the care of middle class families then the number of those children who subsequently developed mood, or any other form of mental disorder subsequently reduced. This proves that economic status (ES) is an important factor, however it is likely to be the case ES leads to numerous other contributing factors rather than being sole contributor (Bruce & Hoff, 1994). Factors include; access to a good education, support from extended family members, healthy living and nourishment, praise and encouragement from parents, etc.

I spoke of psychological issues that rise from deprivation. It is a sad fact that children in poverty are often the topic of conversation among others. They are ridiculed, gossiped about, and excluded from social gatherings and out of school activities. It is as if the impoverished are viewed as if they have the plague. Common descriptions, taken from national surveys include words such as “lazy, worthless, inferior, and undeserving”. This misconception of the poor being the cause for their own predicament, not only removes any possible blame from neglected political responsibilities (which contribute largely), but also creates what psychologists termed a “self fulfilling prophecy”. This theory is based on the belief that beliefs shape and influence actions. By this one means; those who are seen as inferior are likely to be treated as inferior. So much so that they actually become inferior because of the lack of social support available. Children are particularly vulnerable to the influence of their social networks, because they are still developing and creating identities for themselves. The idea of a “looking glass self” is of relevance here also (Cooley 1902), which theorises that children’s self concepts are based on what others portray. There is high chance that their actual and their perceived self identity become misconstrued, if and when evidence from external sources supports the latter. They familiarise with the concept that they are weak individuals, and the negative emotions that accompany this such as self doubt, or guilt. It is important to recognise the relevance here for social workers, because this part of society categorised as “lower class citizens” will benefit the most from services such as child support, child therapy, connexions, EMA, every child matters and so on.

And so in response to all this, SW agencies have implemented numerous partnership schemes; the women, infant and children (WIC) nutrition programme for example, which is designed to get pregnant women and children under 5 eating more healthily, Head Start provides low cost day care to children from families earning less than the 60% threshold of the average family, and many areas now even have schemes to provide low cost/free health insurance for children of all ages.

It is up to the SW to assess families/individuals and to determine their eligibility for government aid. For those who are suffering from mental health as a result of poverty, SW’s are able to put them in touch with professionals who can help and advise. For those who have very few or none of the necessities from the PSE Survey SW’s can organise for clubs where the children can go meet peers and to join in social activities. For parents who have racked up a series of debt SW’s are able to help them devise a set of preliminary steps in a certain time period resulting in a more secure financial situation (See Task Centred Practice).

Clients often give off negative reviews of SW because it has failed to be of any use with real concerns; state of housing, living, etc. But task centred practice can actually be therapeutic, because it is the client who becomes the changing agent, deciding which problems they want to tackle and in what order. By using this, service providers are employing a learning experience. One which relies on both self growth and skills development, whilst addressing the more important issues.

But what issues should the SW investigate first? It would be a logical idea to get right back to the start and look at what caused the families’ decline into poverty. Here lies a problem however, for there are different theories on what the main area of focus should be; some theories blame the individual while others focus on the failings of society. Because of this conflict in ideas it can prove difficult for SW’s to accurately make assessments, or come to an agreement with each other when conducting a review. Below are a number of theories on the causes of poverty, to give an idea of these so mentioned conflicts.

Firstly, explanations can be fit into three main areas; functionalist, individualistic, and Structural (Marxist).

So to start, functionalists focus on the idea that any form of poverty, be it adult, child or both, proves necessary, for without it society would not govern properly. Naturally such a statement has spawned a great deal of controversy; however the theory is conceivable because it is based on logistics. Society is viewed on a grander scale than simply the here and now. And so by applying somewhat of a utilitarianistic approach, rather than considering individuals, it looks at the whole picture. Philosophers such as Herbert Gans (1971) have made contributions to this, suggesting that “poverty benefits the non poor and also the rich and powerful, who therefore have a vested interest in maintaining poverty.” He further suggested 5 reasons why he believed poverty is acceptable.

  • There will always be a need for individuals to fit the jobs seen as dirty, demeaning, and without prospects. Those in poverty would rather do these than starve. Those born into poverty will grow up to replace their parent’s and so the cycle continues.
  • Industries require minimum wage (or lower) work staff in order to maintain profit margins. Those in poverty are generally of low/no qualification status and so are not liable to receive higher pay. Those born into poverty generally receive poorer education than most and so are just as unlikely to receive desirable qualifications as did their parents.
  • Without poverty, there would be a loss of jobs for those individuals who strive to combat poverty, such as social workers. A large proportion of social work revolves around work with children, so if all child poverty was resolved then many social workers would find it is they who are in need of support. Furthermore, it would also reduce the profits of wholesalers who rely on the desperation of those in poverty. Children often find there is little in the form of food at home, and so any money they have goes towards buying whatever is cheapest from stores.
  • Poverty provides a measure of comparison for those of low opinion of their situation, and works to reassure them that there will always be people worse off than they themselves. This is true for all age groups.
  • The media uses those in poverty as scapegoats whenever anything goes wrong in society, such as incidents of crime, rape or violence. With no one to speak out for them, the blame resides. Children are seen as vandals, and so by putting the blame on them the media is protecting societies own mistakes.

Gans makes it clear that he does support poverty; he states that “Phenomena like poverty can be eliminated only when they become dysfunctional for the affluent or powerful, or when the powerless can obtain enough power to change society.” From looking at this, one may conclude that the reason for child poverty is because people are allowing it to happen in the first place. An increasing number of adult workers are being rid of the opportunity to earn a stable income, and so their families will suffer as a consequence. Although this not explain what the actual cause is, it does give us an understanding of why child poverty has become such a widespread issue, and why not more has been done to prevent it.

Individualists are of the opinion that people are responsible for their circumstances, and have devised several theories of their own. Firstly is the idea of culture, which draws from the research of Oscar Lewis (1966) on Puerto Rican and Mexican families. He acknowledged that children are brought up to appreciate certain values, which they identify with themselves and in time teach their own offspring thus continuing the cycle. And so for those families in poverty, who have low self esteem, motivation, a sense of helplessness etc, they will pass on their negative attitudes through each generation. They will also pass on (through learning and modelling) their negative behaviours, such as drinking, violence, staying at home and not finding work, adultery, divorce, etc. And so this creates a culture of poverty, the fundamental cause being family (specifically parental) influences on their children.

Lewis has been challenged because he does not offer a suggestion as to what causes poverty to begin with. Furthermore, it was suggested that children in poverty are no different in terms of beliefs, values, or personalities than those from middle or upper class families. The differences there are, are between income, opportunities for skills, learning and development. And so the alternative suggestion is that the so called culture of poverty is a result of responses of living that parents bring to their children.

Secondly is the idea of a cycle of deprivation, which is based on the works of Sir Keith Joseph (1970). He suggested that the causes of poverty stem beyond social status, and move into the domain of family problems. By this Sir Keith was referring to, for example cognitive skills, social skills, personality, health and development, etc. Now consider human relationships, what attracts people? More often than not we search for those who hold similarities to ourselves. Therefore, children in poverty, with their existing family problems, will grow up to form relationships with those who similarly have grown up in poverty and have their own family problems. The resulting offspring from such couples will inevitably follow the same patterns of development and hold similar preferences once they reach adulthood themselves. And so the cycle is endless. Child poverty results from both parents growing up in a relatively similar way.

Sir Keith has been challenged just like Lewis, for not explaining how poverty actually starts, but also because it was suggested that not all children end up like their parents, and a number of them can in fact escape the cycle. Opportunities may arise for children that did not arise for their parent’s, they may form relationships with different kinds of people, or they may show a compassion for achieving that, although did not come from either parent, was just good fortune.

And finally is the concept of underclass, which Jones and Novak(1999) describe as a brutal victim-blaming theory. They went on to write how poverty is caused by people’s behaviours and not their circumstances. For example there are many who go through periods of unemployment, are made redundant from current jobs, or who lose money due to household repairs, hospital bills, child support, etc. But of those people, not all of them sink into deprivation, the majority pick themselves up and go on to find something else, or look for support from friends and family until something comes along. Novak and Jones saw the problem to be those who come to rely on income support as a way of living. They were even more so concerned with the children who grow up in impoverished families, learning destructive values and beliefs and growing up to become delinquents. For these, poverty will continue across generations to come.

Arguments against the underclass concept revolve around the fact that it negates consideration of structural factors as a cause of poverty, and the lack of evidence to support any of the suggestions made.

Despite the criticisms to Individualistic theories, they still hold a high power in modern society. Politicians like Tony Blair for example have stated: “This cycle of deprivation is bad for everyone. But it is particularly unfair for children who miss out on opportunities because they inherit the disadvantage faced by their parents, so their life chances are determined by where they come from rather than who they are”.

The final theory looks at structural explanations for child poverty, primarily directed at the economic standards for any area, child development services on offer, and various other components which form the foundations for living. Supporters of this view takes a Marxist approach; that a class system is necessary, for those at the higher end rely on those at the lower end to provide them with work staff, who they exploit and employ on menial wages. And so there will always be poverty, well at least until capitalism is defeated. Or when society moves towards equality of all its members irrespective of their situation and/or upbringing. Such a concept seems unlikely, as it lacks a sense of fairness to those who see themselves as more deserving. Although it is a misconception that those people in poverty have brought it upon themselves, there is a grain of truth in the matter. The actuality is that those well off have earned it, through hard work and good business sense, while many of those in poverty never managed to do well in school, missed out on opportunities, and failed to achieve. Child poverty results from a continuation of generations of un-achievers, and so there will always be able bodies to recruit into the unprofessional workforce.

Marxists go on further to suggest that SW is another of life’s necessities, because social workers ensure that poverty is kept stable. They argue that SW does not aim to cure poverty, nor does it aim to remove people from their impoverished lives. Rather, SW looks to protect the well being of individuals and keeps them from distressing and becoming incapable of work. To do this, workers take service user’s focus away from blaming the system, and persuade them to look at faults of their own, their shortcomings and their failures. By doing this, SW manages to halt any challenge to the system that individuals may pose such as groups forming who speak out against the oppressors.

In conclusion, there are numerous causes for child poverty, but at its roots the government has stated that worklessness is their primary concern, which interacts alongside with family dysfunction, neglect and insecure attachments, low quality day-care and schooling, and state of neighbourhood. With fewer work opportunities more people are having to settle for meagre salaries until something better comes along (which it won’t). There is also an increase in the number of single parents, due to increases in death rates and divorce among the poor. With only one source of income, and a loss of support when it comes to raising children, single parents are forced to depend on income support. As a result, they will never manage to find their way out of poverty.

References

  • Bailey and Brake, Corrigan and Leonard, Bolger, Becker and MacPherson, & Adams, The British Journal of Social Work; Poverty and Social Justice, Oxford Journals, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1988, & 1998.
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  • Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Inquiry into income and wealth. Volumes 1 and 2. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1995
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  • The PSE survey, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, http://www.bris.ac.uk/poverty/pse/

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