The future of the left since 1884

Child poverty in the UK

Policymakers are letting disadvantaged, low-income families down by side-lining child poverty and switching attention to social mobility, writes Carl Parsons.



Child poverty and social mobility – two separate issues

Child poverty and social mobility are two separate societal problems, each requiring their own solutions. The merging of these two apparently intransigent, dynamic and deeply damaging aspects of our society is not just annoying for those working to draw attention to child poverty but it distorts policy thinking to the point where mobility is expected to diminish poverty and schools are to make mobility for poor pupils happen. This converts child poverty to an educational challenge and distracts attention from family wage levels, the availability of higher-earning jobs in areas where such employment is needed and turns it into a flawed meritocracy where the only solution on offer is poor children gaining higher GCSE grades and thereby moving ‘up’. The Social Mobility Commission’s 2017 state of the nation report is a travesty, a distraction from the real source of injustice, an avoidance of child poverty – free school meal status – which is the strongest correlate and likely causal link with low educational attainment. Readers can be seduced into taking seriously the sixteen indicators of mobility, combined to give a dubious social mobility index, then used to identify ‘hotspots’ and ‘coldspots’, so many of which simply correspond to affluent and deprived areas, crystal clear from the multiple nicely presented maps.

It is not pedantic to press the point about the distinction between child poverty and social mobility; it is either a crass error or dishonest intent to entwine the two terms, compounded by the decision to drop ‘child poverty’ from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission title. This was an appalling failure of trust coupled with quietly dropping the prime goal of the 2010 Child Poverty Act: to eradicate child poverty by 2020. This goal, the rhetorical, final posturing of an outgoing Labour administration, was nonetheless taken seriously by anti-poverty campaigners. By side-lining child poverty and switching attention to social mobility, and then focussing on schools to ‘close the attainment gap’, we have allowed ourselves to be drawn away from the fundamental factor in low attainment. No amount of optimism and heroic effort from educators, such as was expressed by Blandford in 2017, will have the effect that reduced child poverty would have. Analysts over 50 years, from Bernstein (1970), through Mortimore and Whitty (1997) to Gorard (2010), continue to be right about the limits to how much schools can ‘compensate for society’.

Many older people recall benefitting from structural changes in the employment field in the last century with the expansion of white collar and professional positions as the proportion of semi- and unskilled-jobs declined. Social mobility requires ‘higher’ steps to move up to which means creating more ‘middle class’ jobs. The government’s latest social mobility strategy, with its twelve ‘opportunity areas’, is definitely not the answer.

Child poverty is family poverty. It is about too little money coming into the household with the consequence that the children are comparatively poorly provided for. They are poor children. They are deprived in various ways. They lack material things, decent housing, good diet, holidays etc. More than that, they have parents and carers who struggle emotionally and in terms of energy levels. The barriers these children have to surmount are greater than those living in more affluent conditions. For a whole set of reasons, they are disadvantaged in education from preschool through to sixth form, university entrance and even on to professional jobs. Their home lives are not calm, focussed on their wellbeing and capable of being supportive of their educational progress, but taken up with meeting basic needs.

How do you solve a problem like child poverty? Answer: you increase welfare benefits, raise wage levels at the bottom of the employment scale, invest in job creation and skill development for earners, ensure rented housing is affordable or implement universal basic income (UBI).

The condensed account of what is means to be poor is not a parody and does not affect all equally but the burden makes itself felt from early childhood onwards and is revealed in the correspondence between poverty levels and attainment at every level.

Social mobility, on the other hand, is about people moving up and down the socio-economic strata of society. It means moving, as you grow up, from a childhood with a family existing on unemployment benefit to a job. It means that compared with the parents in manual or lower administrative positions the child has become a professional. It even means that children of lower professionals (teachers, nurses, bank clerks) become qualified as solicitors and doctors. It also means that there is movement in the other direction ie downwards. After all, we cannot all be doctors and solicitors.

How do you solve the problem of too little (upward) social mobility? Answer: You create more routes through education, better support, more second chances, more employers developing their employees and more allowance for those who do not start out with family income and sponsorship advantages. And one expects downward mobility.

The startling reality is that you can have high rates of social mobility but unchanged levels of child poverty. This is meritocracy at its most pernicious because it conveys the myth that by individuals’ own efforts and intrinsic qualities they reach the position they deserve in society. The corollary of this is that if you are at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy, then that is where you deserve to be. The idea that it is about the personal qualities of resilience, application and aspiration is absurd, particularly the suggestion that these qualities be disproportionately evidenced in the poorest sections of society. Children are hobbled by poverty. Poverty holds them back. Poverty makes life more difficult. We should foreground actual, real, experienced poverty and not conceptually muddled social mobility.

You can have low levels of child poverty and unchanged levels of social mobility. Families can be raised out of poverty by more generous social welfare provision and an insistence that employers pay a more generous living wage. If there are jobs to be done to serve the economic wellbeing of the country, no one should be doing these at a rate that does not enable them to support a family. Additionally, we might need to look at subsidised housing, transport, some compensation for those with large families, ways of providing better support for families in difficulties where misfortunes occur and where children will otherwise suffer.

Where there is a link between child poverty and social mobility it is quite simply that some children on free school meals or in the lower tenths of the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index areas can rise up to a better level of living. If this were possible with no one, or few, moving down, then you have net upward social mobility. Some poor children will progress successfully through education and lift themselves to a higher socio-economic level than their parents. We cannot afford to wait for this oblique promotion of social mobility to overcome child poverty.

There should be no more conflating of the two issues and no more irritatingly illogical laments that ‘social mobility policies have failed to significantly reduce inequality between the rich and poor despite two decades of the interventions by successive governments’. No more calling on ‘social justice’ or ‘equity’ arguments which bring us close to separating out the deserving from undeserving poor. Keep it simple: children should not be growing up in poverty, it is preventable, is a moral imperative and better done without confusing the task with other policy goals. To be clear, the simple messages, multiply stated are: reduce child poverty, stop children growing up poor, pay the money to support a reasonable way of family life.

Children are not responsible for the poverty that they grow up in. They should not have to suffer the consequences that arise from this state. Headteachers, directors of education, university departments of education and members of parliament should urge that priority is given to actually reducing the proportion of young people living in disadvantaged, low income families. Collectively, they should be alarmed at reported increases in child poverty in the UK and that it is at a higher rate than in most rich countries. The Social Mobility Commission’s 2017 report, no doubt written by a well-meaning and clever team to a reasoned political brief, demonstrates how child poverty has been pushed to the margin, and a political and moral problem has been turned into a technical one, showing just how far off the rails policy thinking has been led.


Carl Parsons

Professor Carl Parsons is a visiting professor of social inclusion studies in the Department of Education and Community Studies at the University of Greenwich. He was previously professor of education at Canterbury Christ Church University. His recent work has included research on school exclusions and the impact of poverty on school attainment.

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