No escape for Cameron on importance of poverty

Cameron's "parenting warmth" speech is misleading. Research indicates the clear role played by poverty in determining both life chances and the quality of parenting.

David Cameron’s speech yesterday on “parenting warmth” has been savaged today by Polly Toynbee while leading research indicates the clear role played by poverty in determining both a child’s life chances and the quality of parenting.

In a widely reported soundbite, David Cameron claimed that:

“What matters most to a child’s life chances is not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting.”

But Polly Toynbee today outlines the fallacy of these remarks:

“In the realm of the blindingly obvious, children brought up by ­loving parents do better than the unloved. Is it all about money? No, the beloved children of a curate as poor as a church mouse will do fine. Unloved children of rich but frosty parents may do badly (don’t mention the Queen). But there is no escaping the fact that children of families poverty-stricken for generations stand least chance. No one ever said they only lack money – they lack nearly everything.”

Indeed, the Demos report being discussed yesterday, ‘Building character‘ outlines that:

“Three kinds of disadvantage inhibit the development of character capabilities in the early years, relating broadly to poverty, psychology and parenting … The children of parents with a low income and/or low educational qualifications are less likely to develop these vital character capabilities.”

A chart in the report shows this graphically and outlines that “there is a clear relationship between family income and child outcomes.”

The report goes on to outline that “When we control for other characteristics – in particular measures of parental confidence and self-esteem – the differences in child outcomes between richer and poorer families are no longer statistically significant.”

In other words, parenting is critical but children at the bottom tend to face worse parenting. Why is this the case? The Commission on Families and the Wellbeing of Children has concluded that, “Poverty does matter, not so much because it directly causes children to have problems, but because it makes good family functioning more difficult to achieve.”

A separate report by Paul Gregg and others for the LSE on ‘Understanding the relationship between parental income and multiple child outcomes‘ outlines that, “many aspects of growing up in poverty are harmful to children’s development.” In more technical language it concludes that when “socio-economic characteristics” such as parental education are excluded, the impact of income on most children’s development remains.

Addressing child poverty is therefore critical to improving both parenting and life chances. What do the Conservatives propose to do? At yesterday’s event Cameron reiterated his commitment to “recognise marriage in the tax system.”

A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report for Gingerbread analysed the relative impact on child poverty of (i) a tax allowance for married couples with children under five and (ii) an increase in the working tax credit for couples with children. Both cost £0.8 billion and had a similar impact on work incentives. The Tory marriage tax policy reduced child poverty by “less than 10,000” while the tax credit approach helped around 100,000 children out of poverty.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.