A recent report by the Centre for Social Justice argues that there is more to child poverty than a low family income, and that the government needs to look at the root causes of poverty and the social breakdown which fuels it, not the symptoms, and use these as a basis for its measurement. The indicators recommended by CSJ as a tool for measurement include addiction and substance misuse, low educational performance, workless households and unstable family structures.
Whilst there is no doubt that money, or lack of, is a huge cause of child poverty, and that higher household incomes would help take many families out of poverty, the fact that other indicators are being acknowledged is important towards understanding the causes of child poverty, and not just to address the symptoms. I don’t want to get involved in the debate that the report has stimulated, but at a time of tight resources it is important to consider new ways to both measure and tackle issues around child poverty.
This got me thinking about an evaluation we have recently completed the first phase of (and for which we are about to start an extension) for the Carer’s Trust on a whole family intervention project supporting young carers. The evaluation is of two pilot projects which have adopted a whole family approach to supporting young carers, and a lot of the causes of poverty referred to in the report are the causes and symptoms of caring for many of the young carers and families we met during our research; such as poor parenting, unstable family structures, and parents with mental health issues.
In the case of the families we met through our interviews, we found that some of the root causes of why the young carers are caring in the first place (such as a parent’s poor mental health, or addiction and substance abuse) and the symptoms of these causes (such as poor parenting or unstable family structures) are the indicators highlighted in the report as a real definition of child poverty, in the same way that a low income is. Often these families will be suffering from more than one of these ‘factors’ because they are so interlinked and complex, and for many of these families it results in the child taking on a caring role.
For me, this really demonstrates the potential of whole-family working. Poor parenting, unstable family structures, mental health issues and low educational performance are all areas that the projects aimed to address through working with the whole family. The projects provided practical and emotional support to the young carers and the families, but it was the relational support that we found to really be essential for bringing about change, and this was the real success of the projects. This included helping the parent to be a better parent, implementing timetables to help structure family life, supporting the young carer to deal with their frustration; and it was these interventions that led to improved wellbeing and the biggest changes for the family – not necessarily a reduction in caring, but improved attitudes towards it.
For them, more money would certainly have helped, but it wasn’t always the answer. That alone wouldn’t have led to improved family relationships because there are now fewer arguments, because they now know how to support each other or because Mum is happier and the young carer can now go to school regularly without the worry of leaving her at home.
As an article by Christian Guy of CSJ in the Guardian last week put it “a few extra pounds a week might make a difference… but if we choose to look a little deeper, we often find parents struggling to cope with all manner of issues, and services that are failing to change lives”. These projects successfully supported the young carer by working with that family, and led to a whole range of improved outcomes for the family as a whole, as well as supporting the child to be a young carer in a way that creates longer term wellbeing and resilience.
What we did find though, is that for some families, the rebalancing of relationships and parental guidance wasn’t enough. Even for those it did help, there were many cases where extra resources were needed, brought in and paid for. This may have been paying for an additional care worker where some of the caring was inappropriate, or for wider support services such as debt advice or housing support. And a small increase in resource gives the opportunity for a break or respite, which is essential for all carers. Clearly money does still matter, but family working allows for all resources of a household to be used and coordinated better, and with this other services need to play their part.
The next stage of our evaluation is to better define what it is about whole family intervention that really works, and what it should look like so that the learning can be applied to other young carer services, but also more widely within the sector. A challenging concept, but hopefully one that will support other projects and services to do the same.
If you’d like to know more about the work, do get in touch.