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A new perspective on poverty and life-chances


17 Aug 2016

New life has been breathed into the commitment to social justice and opportunity at the highest level, not least by the new Prime Minister, who put it at the heart of the speech she made standing outside the door of Number 10 on her first day.

When Theresa May promised to do everything she could to help everyone to go as far as their talents might take them, regardless of their background, she acknowledged the challenges of families and children experiencing entrenched poverty and disadvantage, or the risk of poverty brought about by precarious work or family circumstances. If the goal of early intervention is to improve the life-chances of children, we must understand the impacts of poverty on children’s lives and the impacts of effective early intervention on families’ experience of poverty.

If the goal of early intervention is to improve the life-chances of children, we must understand the impacts of poverty on children’s lives and the impacts of effective early intervention on families’ experience of poverty.

EIF has produced two important pieces of work in the last 12 months which shed important light on new early intervention approaches to enabling children and young people to thrive and flourish, looking at interparental relationships and child development. Now we are keen to deepen this work to focus on children and families who are in or at risk of poverty.

We are interested in the effects of poverty on the quality of parental relationships and children’s social and emotional skills, and conversely whether the quality of relationships and social and emotional skills can have an effect on poverty. We also want to understand how these are transmitted from generation to generation.

To explore these questions, we have embarked on a major new programme of work, with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. This series of projects, over two years, has real potential to unlock valuable lessons for policymakers and practitioners alike, by combining the JRF’s experience of working for more than a century to tackle poverty with EIF’s expertise in the range of factors that can influence children’s life-chances.

Importantly, this work will be research with a purpose. It will generate new evidence about what programmes and interventions to support relationships and social and emotional skills are likely to have most impact on children and families facing or at risk of poverty. It will look at what services are currently available to support parents with relationship difficulties, and how far they can be accessed by poorer families. And it will develop tools to help those who are commissioning and delivering services at local level, drawing out the key issues for children in or at risk of poverty.

In the longer term, our goal is to pilot this approach, working with a cluster of schools in local areas to test and learn from the evidence how social and emotional skills, or ‘character’, can unlock children’s potential now and for future generations.

In our previous report on social and emotional skills, we found that they have a significant independent impact on social mobility and other adult outcomes, such as mental wellbeing, good physical health, socio-economic and labour market outcomes. The gap in the development of these skills between income groups are evident as early as the age of three and do not narrow over the primary school-age period. What is more, by the end of this period these skills are just as significant as cognitive skills for determining future outcomes such as high income and overall wealth. And they play an important role in transmitting access to top jobs between generations independently of academic ability. So this set of skills – also described as character and ‘grit’ – could play a critical role in helping to remove some of the longstanding barriers to enabling the most disadvantaged children and young people to thrive and flourish.

The other part of this puzzle that we will explore further through this new programme is the relationship between parents themselves – a factor which has a direct impact on children’s social and emotional skills. In our major review of interventions in this area, we found that promoting strong, positive and stable relationships between parents – whether they are together or separated – can improve children’s prospects. This is also a preventative measure, reducing the likelihood of family breakdown leading to increased poverty. By contrast, frequent, intense and poorly resolved conflict can put children’s mental health and long-term life chances at risk. For this reason, understanding the impact of poverty both on interparental relationships and on the effectiveness or accessibility of services designed to support those relationships is a crucial part of our new programme. I’m really excited by the potential of this programme to provide a valuable new perspective on poverty and its impacts on families in the UK. 

About the author

Carey Oppenheim

Carey is an EIF associate and former chief executive.