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Discovering child povertyThe creation of a policy agenda from 1800 to the present$

Lucinda Platt

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9781861345837

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781861345837.001.0001

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Introduction: scope and argument of the book

Introduction: scope and argument of the book

(p.1) One Introduction: scope and argument of the book
Discovering child poverty

Lucinda Platt

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the scope and argument of the book. It provides a broad introduction to developments in child poverty research and the fluctuating attention paid to child poverty over an extended period. It looks at state intervention in the lives of poor children since 1800, exploring how their poverty rendered them a target for state controls, while those same interventions reinforce the perception of them as children by essence and poor by accident. It argues that the distinct status of the child is itself partly created through the operation of social policy. It states that this book emphasises the complexity of the relationship between research and policy, and makes explicit the association between children's and families' — or more particularly women's — welfare, and the issue of children as ‘investments’, that is, the recognition of children in terms of their future potential and as embodiments of ‘the future’.

Keywords:   child poverty, state intervention, state controls, social policy, women's welfare, families

Over the last two hundred years, Britain has witnessed a dramatic shift in the level of concern and attention paid to the issue of child poverty. Child poverty is now high on the policy agenda and is broadly recognised as a problem for society and a fit subject for policy intervention. By setting the development of this policy agenda in historical perspective, this book aims to illuminate both the complex relationship between research and policy, and the way in which policy constructs its own objects of intervention. The role of research into child poverty has sometimes been perceived as being simply about identifying extent, causes and solutions, on which policy makers can then act. As this book argues, however, child poverty becomes politically salient only at certain moments and under certain conditions. Further, the emotive power of childhood, which makes a political imperative out of children’s disadvantage, is also mediated to a greater or lesser extent by particular ideological and political concerns prevailing at different times. Research can, nevertheless, help to create the conditions and to set the parameters for the ways in which governments respond when they do so. The discovery of child poverty and its place at the forefront of the current political agenda have been, then, both a matter of the quantification, study and accounts of child poverty and the recognition of such accounts and their relevance to the polity.

This book provides a broad introduction to developments in child poverty research and the fluctuating attention paid to child poverty over an extended period. A historical understanding of child poverty and the development of child poverty research is an important element to grasping one of the most topical issues of today. As Paul Pierson points out in his discussion of the ways, and extent to which, welfare state institutions themselves influence the conditions surrounding possibilities for their change,

Instead of turning to history for analogous processes, historically grounded analysis should be based upon a recognition that social-policy change unfolds over time. The emphasis on the impact of inherited policy structures illustrates this point. A historical perspective (p.2) highlights the fact that today’s policymakers must operate in an environment fundamentally conditioned by policies inherited from the past.

(Pierson, 1994, p 9)

By looking at state intervention in the lives of poor children since 1800, this account explores how their poverty rendered them a target for state controls, while those same interventions reinforced the perception of them as children by essence and poor by accident. By taking this longer view it becomes possible both to understand and to interrogate family policy, and in particular income maintenance policy, for children as it operated at the very end of the 20th century. Moreover, in taking such a broad historical sweep, it is important to pay attention to the ways that debates and interpolations into debates were constructed. This book, therefore, places a particular emphasis on quotation from some of the most influential documents or figures to demonstrate the language and expression in which research and commentary were conducted. We see from such quotations how concerns, insights and imperatives were couched and how they related to what were regarded as relevant positions. A core element of this book is, then, the inclusion of direct reference to, and quotation from, relevant works across the period, the better to understand both continuities and changes in the formulation of the problem of child poverty and responses to it.

The temporal scope of this book is in one sense arbitrary. Nevertheless, the choice of a two-hundred year trajectory does have a number of advantages. By 1800, the industrial revolution was well advanced, the urbanization of the British population was underway and the increase in population that was to cause so much anxiety was being noted. The period from 1800 can, then, be read as one in which there was a gradual growth in social policy, with a number of critical step-changes at various points, most notably in the ‘welfare state’ settlement marked by legislation in the areas of education, social insurance, social assistance and health between 1944–48. Other crucial moments can be seen in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment which restructured the provision of poor relief in Britain and had a legacy that extended to 1948 (and possibly beyond); while the introduction of state education in 1870 was a further watershed in the development of policy and one which created future possibilities for intervention in family life. Finally, the period from 1997 is one in which the elimination of child poverty has become an explicit target of government.

In addition, the period since 1800 can be identified as one that saw the development of a more distinct, rigidly defined and more universal notion of the child and the nature of childhood. In fact, it is part of the argument (p.3) of this book that the distinct status of the child was itself partly created through the operation of social policy. In relation to poverty research, it was only in the second half of the period covered by this book that there was a clear working definition of what constituted poverty. It was only at this point that the measurement and analysis of a specific phenomenon of child poverty became possible. Nevertheless, the continuities and discontinuities in relation to the definition and quantification of poverty in the 20th century and perspectives on ‘the poor’ and poor relief in the 19th century are an essential part of understanding poverty research.

At the other end of the time period, in May 2000, Gordon Brown declared

Action on child poverty is the obligation this generation owes to the next: to millions of children who should not be growing up in poverty: children who because of poverty, deprivation and the lack of opportunity have been destined to fail even before their life’s journey has begun, children for whom we know — unless we act — life will never be fair. Children in deprived areas who need, deserve and must have a government on their side, a government committed to and fighting for social justice. (Brown, 2000)

In this he was following up on the commitment made by the government that children should be the top priority for the Labour administration. This had been expressed by the Prime Minister in his 1999 lecture, ‘Beveridge Revisited: a welfare state for the 21st century’, where he declared that

Poverty should not be a birthright. Being poor should not be a life sentence …. Our historic aim will be for ours to be the first generation to end child poverty, and it will take a generation. It is a 20-year mission but I believe it can be done. (Blair, 1999, p 17)

There are two things noticeable about these statements: first, their acknowledgement of extensive poverty in the UK; and second, the imperative for state action which that acknowledgement brings. In fact, the prevalence of child poverty and the obligation on the government to respond to child poverty are inseparably connected. Child poverty can only be recognised as a particular social problem once childhood is acknowledged as having a sacrosanct claim to interest, regardless of parental behaviour or economic position. At the same time, the recognition of childhood as being singular and liable to protection renders children ever more directly dependant on their immediate family for increasing (p.4) periods of time. This dependence in turn results in some forms of support being most appropriately delivered through the parents: while certain services, such as education, can be delivered directly to the child, income maintenance aspects of social policy reach the child via their parent(s). Yet if the child’s interest is paramount through virtue of being a child, then the parent’s, by definition, cannot be; and thus there is a reluctance to assist parents directly with a role that they have (voluntarily) taken on. This presents governments with the conundrum of how financially to support children without ‘rewarding’ the parents; and how to achieve the correct balance between parent and state in supporting children.

The centrality of child welfare by the end of the 20th century was implicit within the growth of social policy from 1800, which not only responded to children as a source of concern but also constructed them as such. As Hendrick puts it,

… the history of children and childhood is inescapably inseparable from the history of social policy. We cannot hope to understand the former without an appreciation of the latter. No other sector of the population has been so closely identified with the expansion and multiplication of these policies since the 1870s, and with the growth of the State and its ‘expert’ agencies.

(Hendrick, 1994, p xii)

In 1800 there was no state schooling and education was largely a prerogative of the ruling classes; in 2004 schooling is compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and 16 — and remaining in education up to 18 has become a normative expectation. In 1800 the only forms of child support operated locally (and variably) through parish poor relief to families. By 2004 a complex multi-tiered system of support for children is in operation with a universal child benefit as the base and the child tax credit as an income-related supplement reaching relatively far up the income scale. In 1800, child labour was unregulated and children worked according to their social position and capability. In 2004 there are systematic regulations in place which prohibit work for those aged under 13 and heavily restrict it (by hours, type and time of day) for those aged 14 and 15.

This book traces these developments and attempts to shed light on how the innovations in empirical work and the rise of the social survey contributed to changes in policy. It makes the case that the very development and utilisation of large-scale empirical research were products of the ideological, economic, social, religious and political currents that also critically fashioned social policy across the period. While research findings were pertinent to much policy change, there has not been a (p.5) transparent translation from evidence to evidence-based policy. The relationship between research and policy has, instead, been mediated by the ability and willingness of policy makers to respond to particular findings, and by the forms in which those findings were presented. Thus, ‘evidence’ only became treated as such if it could be made to fit with existing economic and ideological conditions. The arguments from empirical work were convincing only to the extent to which they could accommodate the prevailing political context within which policy makers operated and by which they were informed.

Furthermore, this book shows that the development of policy itself has implications for research. It changes what is possible and what direction research takes. For example, the reorganisation of the Poor Law in 1834, with a much stronger emphasis on institutionalisation, rendered paupers a clearly identifiable and distinct body. They could thus be studied, and compared and contrasted to the ‘respectable’ poor; and ideas of socialisation versus heredity could be explored and pursued with pauper children. The introduction of compulsory schooling in 1880 enabled investigation of the child population — both their mental characteristics and their physical development — on an unprecedented scale. Claims on health insurance (which was legislated for workers in 1911) revealed the shocking condition of women employees’ health, while the poor condition of non-insured women’s health (including that of most mothers) was only fully revealed by the introduction of the National Health Service 37 years later. Unemployment insurance, also introduced in 1911, enabled the unemployed to be counted and hence the scale of the problem and the number of child dependants it affected to be evaluated, especially as it was extended to more and more employees in the 1920s and 1930s. The counting and investigation made possible by policy also furthered understanding of policy, and could stimulate its development.

The final, though related, issue demonstrated in this account is the extent to which policy itself constructs the subject for research. Child poverty research is impossible without a clear notion of the child and why children’s poverty is a particular problem. Through education, child labour restrictions and provision for children by means of family allowances (later child benefit), the state created the space within which ideas of childhood and its unique value could develop. Such ideas, in turn, prompted further investigation and the need for additional policy response. These conceptual developments and concerns with child poverty can also been seen as continuing to form both research and policy agendas not only in the UK but also further afield.

In surveying the developments in research on child poverty and policy responses over the last two centuries and their relationship and interaction, (p.6) this book highlights a number of themes, which run through and structure it. First, it emphasises the complexity of the relationship between research and policy. That is, research impacts may occur neither at the time of the research, nor in ways that are predictable. The influence of research is not necessarily in the direction in which researchers intend and is mediated by the options available to policy makers at a particular time. For child poverty research to be accorded attention it has needed to be both radical and to relate to its time and place. That is, the nature of research and its influence will vary with the political complexion of the country and with ideological and religious factors. It has both to make an impact but also to accord, at least in part, with existing mores.

Second, as well as drawing attention to the relationship between child policy and the delineation of childhood, this account makes explicit the association between children’s and families’ — or more particularly women’s — welfare. Interventions for children often assume the interconnectedness of both the status and the concerns of women and children. This acknowledges the extent to which mothers’ welfare is often bound up with that of their children (Lewis, 1980); but it can also cause child poverty policy to be obstructed, through political resistance to women’s concerns.

The third theme is one also highlighted by Hendrick: the issue of children as ‘investments’, that is, the recognition of children in terms of their future potential and as embodiments of ‘the future’ (Hendrick, 2003, pp 14–16). In the early years of the 20th century child poverty was not simply an issue of current concern, but was tied up with anticipations about the future economic, military, cultural and moral state of the nation. In so far as child poverty could be shown to have negative future consequences, it provided a focus for political mobilisation. The form this political mobilisation took varied over time according to the context and contemporary anxieties, but can be seen, nevertheless, as a recurrent theme up to the present day. For example, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, in his budget speech of 1999 (and many times thereafter), famously declared that children “are 20 per cent of the people but they are 100 per cent of the future” (Brown, 1999).

The main aims of the book are, then, to consider the increasing salience and sophistication of social research; to outline some of the principal moments and figures in poverty research over the period; and to provide an analysis of the extent to which, and the ways in which, policy responded to these findings. The book is therefore structured as follows: Chapter Two provides a brief overview of the relevant developments in research, and of the contexts in which they took place. The chapter provides an introduction to the principal figures who feature in the book and a broad (p.7) chronology of research innovations and influences. In Chapter Three, I consider the question of child labour. Here the argument focuses on campaigns and legislation that were critical to subsequent developments in child welfare and to the construction of both children and women as dependants in social policy. The campaigns and legislation were little influenced by empirical research as such, but rather reveal the ability of campaigners to mobilise particular sentiments and ideas for a cause. Chapter Four treats the question of education. Education presented an alternative occupation for children in the absence of employment. It was also increasingly regarded as essential to national well-being; and yet state intervention was avoided for many years as an undesirable interference. Nevertheless, both the restriction of child labour and the introduction of state education were critical in sanctioning state interference in, and responsibility for, children’s lives. Labour restriction and compulsory education, while not transparently increasing the well-being of the child, created the conditions under which child welfare research and policy could more fully develop. They did this through constituting a child population, which could be subject to observation and measurement and be accessible to intervention.

Restriction of employment and compulsory education had major implications for the well-being of the poorest families and their children. At the same time these interventions contributed to both the identification of poor children and to the recognition of them as having particular calls upon the state. Child welfare could never be fully divorced from family welfare. This resulted in ongoing tensions between research demonstrating child poverty and the consequent policy imperative to do something about it, and fears about subsidising ‘irresponsible’ parents. Chapter Five treats this central issue of ambivilence in recognising child poverty and responding to child poverty research, alongside discussion of the related areas of child (and maternal) health and welfare, looking at the period up to the introduction of family allowances in 1945. The period since 1945 is covered in Chapter Six, which takes up these issues surrounding the identification of child poverty and its intersection with other interventions in children’s lives to explore the policy response and the relationship between child poverty and policy. In the end, policy can be seen as being increasingly informed by systematic research on child poverty. Yet policy makers have persisted in modifying the conclusions of research, sometimes dramatically, to produce a compromise between concern with child poverty and other political and economic concerns. Chapter Seven pulls the strands of the book together in a reflection on the status of child poverty on the policy agenda and the role of research within that.

Discovering child poverty demonstrates how concern with the alleviation (p.8) of child poverty and its empirical investigation have developed alongside, and are implicated in, one another. We live at a time when an apparent consensus has been achieved in relation to the imperative to abolish child poverty. Yet history shows how other periods of consensus have emerged only to disintegrate. Moreover, a historical perspective illuminates the continuities in discourses around child poverty that can occur alongside major transitions in treatment; and it reveals how the apparently beneficent approach to children and their welfare is still embedded in language and ideas which emerged in more punitive contexts or were concerned with agendas, such as nation-building, that were distinct from a primary concern with the well-being of children.