18 January 1991 - 20 January 1991

Children in Poverty in the Developed Western World

Chair: Mr Frank Field MP

Attempts during the early part of the conference to reach agreement on a definition of poverty were perhaps doomed to fail, although all agreed that official definitions - varying from country to country - tended to under-estimate the scale of the problem. (Reference was made, for example, to hidden poverty, where an apparently reasonable male wage was not shared fairly within the family.) Against the traditional concepts of absolute and relative poverty, the idea of exclusive poverty, which operated to exclude the poor from the mainstream of society, might be helpful. More importantly, there was a consensus that the problem was getting worse in all the countries represented, with the possible exception of Canada, and was wearing a younger face. Poverty among children in the United States, the worst affected, had grown by one third since 1970 and in 1989 12.6 million US children - 20 per cent of those under 18 - lived in poverty, while US society as a whole had become more affluent.

The causes of the problem came under two broad headings: macro-economic factors and social change. These were, however, inter-connected. Economic re-structuring throughout the western world had led to changes in the labour market which particularly affected less-educated workers: a decline in the manufacturing sector, fewer jobs for the unskilled, a shift to more part-time work, etc. Distribution of income had become, and was continuing to become, more unequal, as a result, also, of increasing regressivity in tax structures and cutbacks or stagnation in government help for families. Lack of decent affordable housing was another major problem in all the countries represented.

The impact on the poor, and particularly on poor children, of these economic factors had been exacerbated by social and behavioural change. Attitudes to divorce and illegitimacy since the Second World War had changed dramatically and had led to corresponding increases in the incidence of family breakdown and single-parent families. There had been, in general, more concentration on social benefits for the elderly than for children: although most elderly people were not very rich, it was argued, relatively few lived below the poverty level, however defined. Lobbying on behalf of the elderly had been more successful than similar campaigns on behalf of children (perhaps, one cynic suggested, because children do not have votes). Inadequate education, particularly in localities where the poor were in the majority, perpetuated the cycle of poverty, as did factors such as alcoholism, drugs and cruelty and abuse by parents, leading children to leave home.

The conference divided into two working groups to discuss the problems of children in poverty within the home and outside the home. There was general agreement that this division was somewhat artificial, in that poverty outside the home was very often the result of poverty within the home, and that the former could perhaps best be prevented by measures to alleviate the latter. It was suggested that more research was needed in order to determine at what stage in the poverty cycle intervention was most likely to succeed and that careful evaluation of the wide range of existing programmes was required, so as to identify the kind of intervention which was most effective. More research was also needed into how some people succeeded in overcoming poverty: while it was wrong to blame victims of circumstances, it was also wrong to whitewash them, and some managed to break the cycle without special help from outside. The example was cited of Asian refugees who had emigrated to the United States with only the clothes on their backs but whose children had availed themselves of educational and other opportunities available to them with the result that within ten years they had moved out of poverty in large numbers, thanks presumably to the family values and structural support their parents had brought with them.

There was a consensus, however, that the early years in a child’s life, from birth - or even conception - to three, were of overwhelming importance in determining his future and that major problems encountered during those years were very difficult to compensate for at a later stage. Measures aimed at helping poor families with very young children were therefore a priority, whether universally payable child benefits, paid to the caring parent (usually the mother), targeted, means-tested benefits or specific programmes. There was a need for preventative strategies: too much government action was aimed at dealing, too late, with crisis situations. (The simple provision to pregnant women of orange juice, milk and dietary supplements had been shown to result in healthier, brighter children with better prospects of benefiting from education.) The availability of high-quality day-care was also considered essential, whether to enable mothers to enter the labour market and thus raise family income levels, or to give them some respite from stresses within the home. Alternatively, it was suggested that more should be done to encourage mothers of very young children - who, realistically, played the key role in their children’s development - to stay at home to care for them themselves. This was more controversial.

In all the discussion of policies and programmes, of which many successful examples were quoted, it was emphasised that the interests of the individual child should be the first priority and that people in poverty should be involved directly in defining what they needed and wanted. Social services were too often created by middle-class people who saw the problems of the poor from their own particular perspective. It was not very helpful, for example, to persuade pregnant teenage girls to see a doctor who would give the standard advice on diet and attendance at ante-natal classes when there was a very good chance of their being dependent on drugs or alcohol, severely depressed or facing a whole range of problems not usually encountered by a middle-class pregnant woman. Programmes that worked succeeded in combining a range of services to deal with people’s actual problems. There had probably in the past been too little effort put into defining objectives and monitoring results, government in particular being reluctant to define goals or provide resources for evaluation.

Linked to all this was a debate about the relative advantages of benefits in cash or in kind, e.g. child benefit payments v. the provision of good, affordable day-care. The element of choice was stressed: if benefit payments were generous enough, mothers could choose, as more affluent mothers already did, whether to pay for day care or to stay at home. Participants who worked with poor families at grassroots level laid much stress on the alienation of the very poor from the rest of society. Integration was a key to solving many of their problems. A further important, but unresolved, debate centred on the relative merits of universal children’s benefits, phased out or taxed back at upper income levels, or the targeting of all available resources on means-tested schemes. The latter had the disadvantages that take-up rates tended to be relatively low, perhaps because of ignorance of what was available or how to claim, and that they were vulnerable in times of economic recession.

A final major theme was the relationship between the roles of voluntary organisations and the public sector. Voluntary organisations had been first on the scene, Dr Barnardo, for example, providing care for children taken off the streets of London long before the welfare state existed. The state had assumed many of the functions performed originally by the charities, the larger of which were now, however, working with local authorities to provide services paid for by statutory funding. There were both advantages and dangers in this relationship, it was suggested. On the one hand, young people at risk were more prepared to seek help and advice from the voluntary sector than from the public sector backed by the force of law. It was also easier for voluntary organisations than for statutory authorities to use volunteers, who would, it was thought, have an increasingly important part to play, for example, as informal carers, in a ‘mentor’ role with young people or by providing experience of family life without usurping the role of parents. Volunteers were back in fashion, partly because of work with AIDS victims, and there was, in particular, an increasing pool of active retired people with skills and experience on which to draw. This was a way in which people could give something back to their own community, particularly important in the case of ethnic communities in the cities. On the other hand, there was a danger that as voluntary organisations became tied into contracts with local authorities, they could lose their independence and be inhibited from speaking out on the issues and experimenting with new ways of working. Speaking out was very important and it was regretted that the voluntary sector had not been more successful in raising the issue of child poverty on the political agenda, particularly in Britain and the United States.

It was noted at the end of the conference that the Beveridge Report of 1942 had been much more optimistic about the capacity of the state as an agent of change than participants in the conference seemed to be some fifty years later. It was perhaps symbolic that the discussions had ended by emphasising the role of the voluntary sector. There were, however, millions of people in poverty today in the developed western countries and if this situation were to be changed, the state would have to be part of the solution. The cost of the war in the Gulf, we were reminded, had been estimated at $100 billion. Given the political will, the resources could surely be found in all our countries to agree upon and implement non-partisan national strategies for children in poverty. Sound practical, as well as human, considerations made action a priority: demographic changes underway meant that our societies could not afford to allow large sections of the future labour force to go to waste.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: Mr Frank Field MP
Member, House of Commons (Labour), Birkenhead


Mrs Tessa Baring
Chair of Council, Barnardo’s

Ms Fran Bennett
Director, Child Poverty Action Group

Mr Peter Bottomley MP
Member, House of Commons (Conservative), Eltham

Mrs Virginia Bottomley JP MP
Member, House of Commons (Conservative), Surrey South-West; Minister of State for Health

Mr Graeme Brown
Social Policy Officer, The Children’s Society

Professor John Greve
Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Housing Policy, University of York; Emeritus Professor of Social Administration (previously Head of Department of Social Policy and Health Services Studies), University of Leeds

Ms Tessa Jowell
Director, Community Care Programme, Joseph Rowntree Foundation; adviser on community care to Labour Party policy review; prospective Parliamentary Candidate (Labour), Dulwich

Professor Ruth Lister
Professor of Applied Social Studies, University of Bradford

Mrs Mary Miller
Founder, Castlemilk Jeely Piece Clubs; Chairperson, Castlemilk Umbrella Group; Member, Castlemilk Play Forum.

Mr Peter Westland
Under Secretary, Social Services, Association of Metropolitan Authorities, London

Mr Malcolm Wicks
Director, Family Policy Studies Centre, London; previously Research Director and Secretary, Study Commission on the Family; lecturer in social administration, Brunel University

Mr Alan Lee Williams OBE
Warden and Chief Executive, Toynbee Hall

Dr Bruno Tardieu
Fourth World Volunteer, in charge of “Fourth World international alliance”: networking and training people who commit themselves to the Fourth World Movement while keeping their responsibilities in society (1988-90)

Mme Sylvie Tsyboula
Directeur Adjoint, Fondation de France, Paris

Mr John Meston
Executive Director, Canadian Child Welfare Association, Ottawa

Ms Karla Nikolai
Director, Edmonton Association for Youth in Care

Mr Brian D Ward
Special Adviser on Social Issues, Prime Minister’s Office, Ottawa

Ms Sharon M Daly
Director, Office of Domestic Social Development, US Catholic Conference

Dr S Shirley Feldman
Deputy Director, The Stanford Center for the Study of Families, Children and Youth; Professor of Human Biology, Senior Research Scientist in Child Psychiatry, Stanford University; author; Board of Directors, Spring Foundation for Research on Women

Mr Fred M Hechinger
President, The New York Times Foundation Inc; Education Columnist, New York Times; Member, Board of Directors, Academy for Educational Development, Carnegie Corporation, New York, Foreign Policy Association

Mr Stephen B Heintz
Deputy Director, European Studies Center, Štiřin, Prague

Dr Donna E Shalala
Professor of Political Science and Chancellor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Mr Albert Shanker
Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Education and previously Hunter College, New York; President, American Federation of Teachers AFL CIO, Washington DC

Mr William W Treanor
Director, American Youth Work Center, Washington DC