Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Department of Social and Policy Sciences (CP 32)


"Childhood Poverty and Social Exclusion: From a Child's Perspective"

  I.  Research and consultation with children living in poverty can provide valuable insight and understanding into how children experience poverty in childhood. Without an informed awareness of the economic and social pressures that poor and disadvantaged children experience in their everyday lives, policies directed towards the alleviation of child poverty and social exclusion run the risk of failing to respond adequately to those children's needs.

  II.  One such study was based on interviews with 40 children and young people (aged 10 to 17) living in families who had been in receipt of Income Support for at least six months. This memorandum summarises key findings from that research.

  III.  The children interviewed in the study had limited experience of managing money and little access to their own autonomous resources. Those who did receive pocket money used it to pay for essential items like school equipment, clothing and bus fares.

  IV.  Children without access to pocket money were likely to be working. They considered that income earned from work was vital for their own autonomy and security. But children's wages also played an important role in household economies. Children were aware of the negative impact employment could have on their school and social lives.

  V.  Access to adequate and affordable transport was a key issue for children. Many lived in families without private transport, especially children in lone-parent families. Children in rural areas without adequate transport suffered social and spatial isolation. Children in large families were also particularly disadvantaged in this respect.

  VI.  Children were having difficulties sustaining their friendships, and many were fearful of being singled out and seen as different for being poor.

  VII.  Wearing appropriate clothes and looking "right" was considered to be particularly important by children. But many children felt they were unable to buy the clothes they needed to be to be socially accepted by their peers.

  VIII.  Children experienced social exclusion from school trips and other shared activities. They also reported difficulties paying for school uniforms, providing materials for exam projects and finding general school equipment.

  IX.  Schools were manifestly failing to provide these children with an enriching and socially inclusive environment. Children's accounts revealed the dangers of being excluded within school.

  X.  Children were not attending organised clubs nor taking part in social activities (such as youth clubs, after school clubs or sports clubs) at home. Entry fees, uniform and equipment costs, and transport costs affected access to these.

  XI.  Children in the study were fearful of social detachment and stigma. They were also concerned about not having enough money and how their parents were going to manage.

  XII.  There was little difference in experiences and circumstances between children in lone-parent and two-parent families.

  XIII.  Age is an important factor, children experience poverty in different ways at different ages. However both girls and boys were experiencing difficulties and had similar concerns. Although girls were more likely than boys to express concerns about their parents.

  XIV.  Rural childhood poverty can be isolating and heavily stigmatised. Rural children often felt isolated and marginalised in their small communities.

  XV.  Children try to protect their parents from the worst effects of poverty in childhood. They may do this by limiting their needs and aspirations.


  XVI.  Further increases in Income Support rates are needed in order to improve the living standards of children in families receiving benefit. This should include rates for both adults and children, because children's well-being cannot be divorced from that of their families.

  XVII.  Low-income children and their parents should be included in the development of child poverty indicators and measures of child well-being.

  XVIII.  The Social Fund needs urgent reform if it is to meet the needs of children.

  XIX.  School uniform grants should be re-introduced to respond to children's fears of social stigma and difference at school.

  XX.  Children should be assured access to a range of school trips, and special fund should be set up in schools to help low-income children with examination project costs.

  XXI.  Free school meals play an important nutritional role in children's lives, but they must be delivered in a non-stigmatising way.

  XXII.  Improved out of school services, accessible to low-income children, are required, and children should be involved in setting up and developing services in their neighbourhoods.

  XXIII.  Transport concessions are needed for large families and for children aged between 14 and17 years in low-income households.

  XXIV.  It is essential that policy-makers recognise the importance of childhood in it's own right. Policy should address children's everyday experiences as well as their future developmental needs.


  1.  This memorandum is in response to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee call for evidence to assist in its enquiry into Child Poverty.

  1.  The Government's commitment to ending child poverty within a 20-year period is a very significant and welcome policy development. For too long the needs and concerns of children who are poor have been sidelined and largely ignored. The "Child Poverty Review" will provide an important impetus to advance the work already done, and to develop further strategies to ensure that the policy target of eradicating child poverty by 2020 is met.

  2.  This submission is based on findings from a recent research undertaken by the author to explore the lives and experiences of children who are poor[570]. It is a child-centred study, which seeks to place children's own meanings and values at the centre of the research process in order to develop an understanding of childhood poverty as a lived experience.

  3.  In developing policies that aim to address child poverty, it is important to engage with the lives and experiences of children themselves. Without a good understanding of how poverty in childhood affects children's everyday lives, polices aimed at the eradication of child poverty may fail to address key issues that children themselves would identify as critical for their well-being.

Findings and Policy Implications of "Childhood Poverty and Social Exclusion: from a Child's Perspective"—Child-Centred Research Conducted with Low-Income Children

  4.  This research study is based on in-depth interviews with 40 children and young people aged between 10 and 17 years old who were living in families in receipt of Income Support. Further details of the study sample and research methodology can be found in Annex 1 to this memorandum.

  5.  The study used in-depth child-centred interviews with children to explore their experiences at school, at home and with their families. The study focused on children's economic and material environment, their social and familial lives, and their own understandings of the impact poverty has made on their lives.

The Value of Consultation and Research with Children

  6.  We know from previous studies that growing up in poverty has severely adverse outcomes for many children[571]. But we know far less about how the experience of poverty and social exclusion impacts on children's own perceptions of their lives. We have little understanding of how children interpret their experiences of poverty and how those experiences may be mediated through their differences and embedded in a diversity of social and structural environments.

  7.  Children are best placed to tell us about the issues and concerns that face them in their lives, but in the past there has been very little research and engagement with children who are living in poverty. What research there is shows that children who are poor are under considerable social and economic pressures in their childhood[572]. Therefore, to understand how children experience poverty and identify the issues that concern them it is necessary to engage with them directly.

Research Findings—Children's Access to Economic and Material Resources

  8.  A higher standard of living in society leads to increasing demands and escalating pressures on low-income families struggling to achieve adequate social integration and social standing. We live in a sophisticated and complex economic world, and the development of early economic socialisation is of growing importance. The provision of pocket money is one of the main agents of economic socialisation, where children develop their capacities as social actors[573]. Children living in families where financial and material resources are highly constrained are likely to experience great difficulties developing financial literacy and accessing sufficient economic resources for adequate social participation with their peers.

  9.  In the study, children reported very limited opportunities to access their own autonomously controlled economic resources, particularly pocket money. Nearly three quarters of the children did not receive any pocket money at all, or received it only on an irregular basis. This has significant implications for children's socio-economic development.

  10.  Children who did receive some pocket money were often using it to save up for clothes, school items and bus fares. In this way they were able to go some way towards sustaining themselves in areas where they felt they were experiencing considerable social and economic disadvantage.

  11.  Many of the children without pocket money were working. This clearly played an essential part in providing a measure of autonomy and security. Money earned was used to participate with other children, to share in social events and to save and purchase important signifiers of childhood social status such as clothes or trainers.

  12.  Children and young people who were working showed considerable understanding of their family's financial situation. Income from work both sustained children and contributed to family budgets directly and in kind.

  13.  Children were aware that paid work could also have a negative impact on their lives, through low pay, loss of time for social interaction, and tensions between school and work. This had caused several children and young people to leave their employment.

Children's Access to Affordable and Appropriate Transport

  14.  Both urban and rural children identified access to affordable transport as an especially vital issue for them, without it they are vulnerable to social, and in some instances, spatial isolation.

  15.  Nearly half of the children lived in households without a car, and the majority of these were living in lone-parent households. The difference between lone and two-parent households was particularly marked in rural areas, where access to a car was generally considered an essential need rather than a luxury item.

  16.  Children who were regularly bussed into their rural schools then dispersed back into their small communities felt that inadequate and costly public transport stopped them from staying on at school, and meeting up with other children after school and during the weekends and holidays.

  17.  Children in large families felt particularly disadvantaged, and the cost to large families of shared family trips on public transport was seen as prohibitive.

Children's Social Relations and Social Integration

  18.  The importance of friendship for children lies not just in the growth and development of social skills and social identities, but also in learning to accept and understand others[574]. Friendships and social networks are also increasingly recognised as powerful social assets, playing an important role in the development and maintenance of social capital[575]. Therefore the role of friendship and social networks in facilitating social integration and developing secure social identities is an important issue for children. This is especially so for children who are experiencing poverty and disadvantage which can result in restricted social networks and social opportunities. Difficulties in maintaining social relationships can leave children vulnerable to social exclusion[576].

  19.  Children in the study greatly valued their friendships and they identified friendship as protective and supportive. However, most of the children in the study were having difficulties sustaining their friendships and participating in social groups and accepted social activities with their friends. They saw this as due mainly to the cost of participating and the costs of transport.

  20.  Children in the study also identified the social significance of wearing appropriate and suitable clothing. Wearing the right clothes gave them the capacity to sustain themselves within the fashion expectations of their peers and avoid the dangers of stigma, bullying and exclusion that could follow from `inappropriate' dressing. However, the cost of getting the right clothes was usually seen as prohibitive.

Children's Experiences of School Life

  21.  The research focused particularly on school as an important social environment for children. Many anti-poverty policy measures intended to address children's social and developmental needs have been directed through schools. These have tended to focus on improving literacy and numeracy standards and on tackling truancy and school exclusions[577]. Whilst these are important issues in children's lives, the degree of social inclusion that children experience at school is also vital.

  22.  By children's own accounts, the schools they were attending were manifestly failing to provide them with a sufficiently inclusive social environment for their needs. They revealed school life to be fraught with the dangers of bullying, material disadvantage and structural exclusion from shared activities through financial hardship.

  23.  Half of the children were not going on school trips with their peers, and were therefore regularly missing out on shared social and educational experiences. Some children were excluding themselves from school trips by not taking letters home, feeling that the cost was too high even to approach their parents.

  24.  As well as exclusion from shared social activities, children were also keenly aware that material costs were affecting their school involvement, particularly school uniform costs and the extra demands related to project costs and educational trips particularly during examination years.

  25.  Free school meals were also an area of concern for some children. They were particularly singled out by children in rural areas, who felt receiving free school meals had led to heightened visibility and stigma. This was generally related to the method of establishing eligibility and the delivery system used by their schools.

Children's Home Environment and their Personal and Familial Lives

  26.  Children's capacity to participate in shared organised activities in their neighbourhoods was limited, and they were generally unlikely to be participating in any activities outside of their school environment. It was not that these children and young people did not wish to join in, rather that they were unable to do so. Entry fees, uniform or equipment costs, transport cost and availability were all cited as barriers to participation.

  27.  The Government has shown a keen interest in improving the quality of youth services through the establishment of the Connexions Service[578]. However, these enhanced services are still in their formative stages and the fieldwork areas of the study were characterised by a general dearth of affordable clubs and leisure facilities.

  28.  When children were asked to reflect on their lives in families receiving benefits, it was evident that children were well aware of the impact of poverty on their lives. For many of them the advent of poverty had accompanied severe upheaval in their lives, through family illness and disability, or family breakdown. For others, a life on benefits was all they had ever known.

  29.  The effect of poverty on their social involvement and their friendships was an area particularly highlighted by children. Fears of social detachment and social difference were expressed and children were especially aware of being excluded from the events and activities of their friends and social groups.

  30.  Children's worries and fears revealed a set of very adult issues. Fears and concerns for parents were evident, and reflected an element of family insecurity. Children were also worried about money; about how their parents would pay bills, and about whether there would be enough for their own needs, as well as for their families.

  31.  Given the imaginary opportunity to change anything at all about their lives, children did not have an instant wish list of expensive toys and possessions. The things they would change were related to the mundane everyday struggles in their lives. The need to have more space, or a break from the worry of a disabled family member, or more opportunities to be social and to see friends. Above all children wished for more money to ensure some measure of security, not just for themselves, but also for their parents.

Overarching Themes that Emerged from the Study

  32.  Interviews with children showed how poverty and disadvantage can permeate every aspect of their lives; from the material and more quantifiable aspects of their needs, to the social and emotional requirements of childhood.

  33.  There was little difference found in the study between children in lone-parent families and those within two-parent families. Similarities in the duration of poverty experienced produced similar poverty profiles between children.

  34.  Age is an important factor to consider in relation to child poverty. Poverty impacts on children's lives in different ways at different ages. Critical transitions in children's lives, for example from junior to secondary school can be particularly difficult for children to manage successfully when they are experiencing poverty. There was less difference than might be expected between boys and girls. They had similar difficulties and expressed similar concerns. Although, girls were more likely than boys to express concern about their parents, and to try to protect them.

  35.  Children in rural areas can experience poverty in very particular ways. Rural poverty is experienced in the midst of plenty and the dangers of differentiation and stigma are very real. Rural children were especially concerned about being singled out as different in their schools and neighbourhoods. The cost and availability of public transport was a key issue for rural children who often felt isolated, marginalized and effectively trapped in their small communities.

  36.  We know from other research that parents, especially mothers, in low-income households go to great lengths to try to protect their children from the worst effects of poverty[579]. This study shows that the need to protect is reciprocal and children are also struggling to protect their parents from the realities of their childhood experiences. This can take many forms, including the self-denial of needs and wants and a moderation of demands in the face of severely constrained alternatives. Of particular concern is the evidence that it is often girls who are most likely to express concerns about their parents, and to temper their aspirations and desires in order to protect them.

  37.  The schools in this study were manifestly failing to provide the children in the study with an enriching or inclusive learning environment. What children identified was exclusion within school rather than exclusion from school.

  38.  The value of ensuring that children are able to maintain adequate social participation is evident. Those able and enabled to stay linked into social networks thorough participation and inclusion in school, and involvement in clubs and other social activities outside of school, may well be better protected against the long term effects of poverty.

Policy recommendations—This section is built on the understanding and insight gained from listening to low-income children. It sets out policy recommendations necessary to address some of the features of exclusion and disadvantage that children highlighted in the study

  39.  The introduction of Child Tax Credit and the general up-rating of benefits for children have given a welcome boost to support for children in low-income families. However, adult benefit rates also need to be raised if the payments for children are not to be diluted within families. The needs of children cannot be separated out from those of their parents. This research shows that children worry about money and show considerable concern about whether their families will be able to pay their bills and manage on a low-income. This can result in children going without and limiting their needs and aspirations to protect their parents.

  40.  The development of new measures of child poverty should include indicators of child well-being that are based on children's lives and experiences. Therefore, there needs to be an ongoing commitment by government to involve low-income children and their parents in developing childhood deprivation indicators.

  41.  Raising children on a restricted income, places considerable strain on both parents and their children. The Social Fund is a key source of extra income for families trying to provide items that children identify as essential for their well-being such as suitable clothes and shoes. However, the Social Fund is not providing sufficient or appropriate support for children and is in urgent need of reform.

  42.  School uniforms clearly play a valuable and protective role in children's lives. However, they are too costly and many low-income families are forced to turn to the Social Fund for help to purchase basic school uniform requirements. This inevitably results in greater poverty as weekly deductions to repay the loans are take from benefits. The restoration of the school uniform grant would directly address children's fears of difference, and relieve some of the pressure on already stretched family budgets

  43.  Children should be assured access to school trips that are associated with the curriculum, and guaranteed the opportunity to share in at least one or more trips away each year that are purely for social reasons.

  44.  Anxiety about school examination projects was a significant area of concern for children. To address this schools should be assisted to establish a fund, which low-income children can draw on for the materials required to fully participate in such projects.

  45.  Measures should be taken to improve the qualification and delivery of free school meals. Nutritionally, free school meals have an important role to play in the health and development of low-income children. For many of the children free school meals were a valuable supplement, especially in families where food supplies at home were reduced and children were feeling hungry. However, for some children, particularly rural children, the experience of collecting the meal was so stigmatised as to make it undesirable. To resolve this a universal system of tokens or swipe cards would ensure that all children collect their meals using the same currency, and free school meal children are treated no differently to others.

  46.  Children and young people experienced great difficulties joining in with shared activities in their neighbourhoods. The provision of appropriate out of school services, that are affordable and attractive to young people, is an imperative if the needs of low-income children are to be met. Wherever possible children and young people should also be involved in identifying their needs and developing facilities in their neighbourhoods.

  47.  Transport costs are a major barrier to children's access to friends and participation in social events. This is particularly important for young people when they move between a half fare and an adult fare. Two forms of transport concession could be developed to address these needs. The first would be available to larger families on a low-income, and the second would be a travel card for young people aged between 14 and 17 years who are living in Income Support families. This would facilitate not only greater social engagement, but also their involvement in part-time work, which many of these young people were seeking in order to provide their own resources.

  48.  Finally, the Government has tended to respond to child poverty in ways that have focused heavily on the futures of children who experience poverty in childhood, a concern for the child as the adult-to-be[580]. This echoes traditional concerns about children that focus less on the lived experience of childhood and more on the child as an investment for the future. This in turn leads to policies taking a particular form. But the effects of poverty in children's lives need to be understood in both the short term (outcomes in childhood itself) and the long term (outcomes in adulthood). An important facet of that process must be an acknowledgement and understanding of the issues that concern children in childhood. Children experience poverty and social exclusion in the immediacy of childhood amongst their peers. Poverty and social exclusion for children is much more than exclusion from society as conceived by adults. It is exclusion from the norms and customs of children's society. Therefore policies directed towards the eradication of childhood poverty must recognise the importance of childhood and the impact that poverty and disadvantage can have on children's everyday lives.

Tess Ridge

November 2003

570   Ridge, T (2002) Childhood Poverty and Social Exclusion: From a Child's perspective Bristol: Policy Press. Back

571   Gregg, P, Harkness, S & Machin, S (1999) Child Development and Family Income, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation; Hobcraft, J (1998) Intergenerational and Life-Course Transmission of Social Exclusion: Influences and Childhood Poverty, Family Disruption and Contact with the Police, Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion CASE Paper 15. London: London School of Economics; Bradshaw, J (2001) Child Poverty Under Labour in G Finnister (2001) An End in Sight, London: Child Poverty Action Group; Ermisch, J, Francescanii, M & Pevalin, D (2001) Outcomes for Children of Poverty, Department of Work and Pensions Research Report No 158. Leeds: Corporate Document Services. Back

572   Middleton, S Ashworth, K & Walker, R (1994) Family Fortunes, London: Child Poverty Action Group; Davis, J & Ridge, T (1997) Same Scenery, Different Lifestyle: Rural children on a low Income, London: The Children's Society; Roker, D (1998) Worth More Than This. Young People Growing up in Family Poverty, London: The Children's Society. Back

573   Lewis, A, Webley, P & Furnham, A (1995) The New Economic Mind, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf; Furnham, A (2001) Parental Attitudes to Pocket Money/Allowances for Children Journal of Economic Psychology 22(3) pp 397-422; Lewis, S A (2001) Money in the Contemporary Family, Croydon: Nestle Family Monitor No 12, Nestle UK Ltd. Back

574   James, A, Jenks, C & Prout, A (1998) Theorizing Childhood, Cambridge: Polity Press; Furnham, A (1989) Friendship and Personal Development in R Porter & S Tomaselli (eds) The Dialectics of Friendship, London: Routledge. Back

575   Perri, 6 (1997) Escaping Poverty, London: Demos; Pahl, R (2000) On Friendship, Cambridge: Polity Press. Back

576   Ridge, T & Millar, J (2000) Excluding Children: Autonomy, Friendship and the Experience of the Care System Social Policy & Administration 34 (2) pp 160-175. Back

577   Cm 4445 (1999) Opportunity for All: Tackling Poverty and Social Exclusion, London: The Stationery Office. Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) (1998) Truancy and Schools Exclusion, Cm 3957 London: The Stationery Office. Back

578   Department of Education and Employment (DfEE) (2000) Connexions: The Best Start in Life for Every Young Person, London: Department of Education and Employment; Department of Education and Employment (DfEE) (2001) Transforming Youth Work. Developing Youth Work for Young People, London: Department of Education and Employment. Back

579   Middleton, S Ashworth, K & Braithwaite, I (1997) Small Fortunes, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Protection from poverty by parents; Goode, J, Callender, C, & Lister, R (1998) Purse or Wallet. Gender Inequalities and Income Distribution Within Families on Benefits, London: Policy Studies Institute. Back

580   Cm 4445 (1999) Opportunity for All: Tackling Poverty and Social Exclusion, London: The Stationery Office; Treasury (1999) Supporting Children Through the Tax and Benefit System, London: HM Treasury. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 22 January 2004