Child poverty and early intervention
EIF director of policy & practice Donna Molloy highlights the crucial role of effective early intervention alongside new efforts to reduce child poverty. As she notes, "these two courses of action are not alternatives, we need to do both".
Child poverty is on the rise. There are over 4 million children living in poverty in the UK, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies expects this to rise to 5 million by 2020. The Social Metrics Commission recently estimated that 2.3 million children are affected by persistent poverty, that is, they have been living in poverty for at least two of the previous three years. The profile of child poverty has also changed over time, with almost three-quarters of children in poverty now living in households where at least one adult is working.
This is a complex issue. Nonetheless, the detrimental impact that poverty has on children’s long-term development is well established. Studies consistently show that economic disadvantage negatively impacts children’s academic performance. These effects can be seen at the time of reception and continue until children finish their GCSEs. A lack of financial resources can also restrict children’s access to enriching learning experiences, within both the home and the wider community.
Economic hardship has also been shown to negatively impact the quality of family relationships by increasing the stress that parents experience. Studies consistently show that this stress can ‘spill over’ into the parent-child relationship, thus negatively impacting children’s sense of security and their ability to manage their feelings and impulses.
So how can early intervention help at a time of increasing child poverty?
There is good evidence showing that effective early intervention can substantially reduce the impact of poverty on children’s development when it is sufficiently intensive and reaches the families who need it the most. For example, there is strong and consistent evidence showing that individualised home visiting support offered during the child’s first few years can significantly reduce the learning gaps typically associated with low family income. Case in point are findings from a recent trial of Parents as First Teachers in Zurich, which observed significant improvements in young children’s language and self-regulatory skills when offered on a twice monthly basis to the city’s 10% most deprived families, from birth until age three.
“There is good evidence showing that effective early intervention can substantially reduce the impact of poverty on children’s development when it is sufficiently intensive and reaches the families who need it the most.”
Studies also show that parenting interventions effectively help disadvantaged parents manage high levels of stress which would otherwise negatively impact the parent child-relationship. For example, findings from a trial of the Incredible Years programme with disadvantaged communities in Ireland observed increases in positive parent-child interactions alongside decreases in parent reports of stress and depression.
Despite these positive gains, we should be clear that early intervention is not a panacea for preventing poverty, nor can it fully reverse all of its negative impacts. Poverty chronically deprives children of the resources necessary for them to thrive, as well as decreasing their resilience to stress and various physical illnesses. We also know that many of the short-term gains achieved by effective early interventions often fade away when children remain in deprived circumstances for long periods of time.
Unsurprisingly, the evidence suggests that early intervention services are likely to be more effective when they are combined with measures to reduce poverty, for example, those which support parents’ access to work, training and improved community resources. For example, studies involving the Family Nurse Partnership programme in the United States show that programme participation increases young mothers’ entry into workforce when policies specifically ensure that education and training opportunities remain available. Studies also show that family stress and children’s achievement improves when policies increase parents’ access to employment and higher wages.
As the UK’s political parties contemplate their policy positions in relation to poverty and tackling economic disadvantage, a focus on effective early intervention is needed alongside new efforts to reduce child poverty. These two courses of action are not alternatives, we need to do both. Reducing economic disadvantage could remove some of the need for early intervention, but not all of it. Not all of the variation in children’s outcomes is explained by socioeconomic factors: even if we were to eliminate economic disadvantage entirely, there would still be some children who need additional, targeted support.
“A focus on effective early intervention is needed alongside new efforts to reduce child poverty. These two courses of action are not alternatives, we need to do both.”
If we care about supporting all children to achieve their potential, then reducing child poverty and mitigating its effects should be high up the political agenda for the next government. Reducing child poverty requires a broad range of policy actions as well as some difficult decisions about how public money is best put to use. We must also continue to focus on increasing the availability of early intervention approaches shown to work. Supporting policymakers and commissioners to prioritise and invest in these is vital if we are to improve the lives of children and young people growing up in challenging circumstances.