All in the family? Putting intergenerational poverty into perspective

Does poverty in childhood inevitably lead to poverty in adulthood? Is it passed from parents to children, ‘cascading down the generations’? Special report by Declan Gaffney.

Does poverty in childhood inevitably lead to poverty in adulthood? Is it passed from parents to children, ‘cascading down the generations’?

On Tuesday, Alan Milburn, the coalition’s advisor on social mobility, stated the case in as blunt a manner as could be imagined:

“Sadly, we still live in a country where, invariably, if you’re born poor, you die poor.”

While Iain Duncan Smith, in his foreword to the government’s child poverty strategy (pdf) published the same day, said:

“We want to break the cycle of deprivation too often passed from one generation to another.”

The strategy document (pdf) states:

“We plan to tackle head-on the causes of poverty which underpin low achievement, aspiration and opportunity across generations.”

All of these statements assume an intergenerational model of poverty which needs to be assessed against the evidence. The main recent source is Blanden and Gibbons 2006 which used cohort studies to look at poverty risks in later life for those who were teenagers in the mid-1970s and mid 1980s.

Of boys who were poor in their teens in the mid-80s, some 19 per cent were poor in their thirties in 2000; among girls who were poor in the ’80s, the figure was substantially higher, 24%.

These are big figures, representing serious intergenerational risks, but they are far from what would be implied by Alan Milburn’s blunt assertion – just how far can be seen by expressing the findings in reverse form: three quarters of poor teenage girls and four fifths of poor teenage boys didn’t grow up to be poor.

Mr Milburn’s statement exemplifies a wider phenomenon: the intergenerational transmission and lifetime persistence of poverty are routinely and vastly overstated in public debate on poverty and social mobility, on both left and right; it is not as if the real facts of the matter do not offer ample cause for concern.

The Blanden/Gibbons study not only shows major disparities in poverty risks, it shows that the persistence of poverty into adulthood increased between the ’70s and ’80s. These are very strong findings, which many would see as quite unacceptable in a wealthy society. But the figures just cited should also alert us to the dangers of exaggeration, of extrapolating from relative risks to a deterministic view of poverty and life chances.

The other side of this determinism is an assumption that adult poverty is primarily driven by where people start in life. This assumption is crucial to the coalition’s claims to be tackling the ‘causes’ rather than the ‘symptoms’ of poverty. But how much adult poverty is explained by poverty in childhood?

Poor children have much higher risks of adult poverty than non-poor children, but there are a lot more non-poor children than poor children. Based on the rates used by Blanden and Gibbons, about half of those who were poor at age 30 in 2000 would have been poor as teenagers.

However, this does not capture the effect of persistence of poverty, for which we need to take account of the number of poor teenagers who would have been poor as adults even if they faced exactly the same risks as non-poor teenagers .On this basis, about 29% of adult male poverty, (at age 30), and 31% of adult female poverty could, at the maximum, be attributed to persistence of poverty from childhood. This allows ‘intergenerational poverty’ to be put into perspective; if poor children faced the same risks of adult poverty as non-poor children, 70% of adult poverty would be unaffected.

None of this means that poverty risks are independent of social origin or family-level processes. But the diversity of the factors which contribute to poverty means that concentrating on one set of influences, such as early years’ development, at the expense of others is unjustified. What happens in childhood is important, but so is what happens in adulthood

As the coalition’s social mobility strategy (pdf), also published on Tuesday. succinctly puts it:

“Lives are not determined by the age of five, 15 or 30.”

This seems to be a pointed rebuttal of Iain Duncan Smith’s views, reportedly summarised as “it’s game over by age five” by a number 10 staffer.

What happens at the level of the family is important, but so is what happens at the level of the economy and society. You are much more likely to be poor as an adult if you were poor as a child (although you are still much more likely not to be poor): but you are also much more likely to be poor, whether or not you were poor as a child, if unemployment is high or if the lower end of the income distribution is falling away from the middle.

The rise in poverty during the 1980’s, shown in the chart below, should dispel any notion that intergenerational transmission is the main explanation of poverty in the UK. The fact that this rise occurred under Conservative administrations may explain why Iain Duncan Smith is so keen to stress family-level influences at the expense of broader social, economic and institutional factors.

Over the centuries the idea that poverty is determined by inheritance has proved remarkably resilient, whether the mechanism of transmission was seen as divine reprobation, vice, degeneration, genetic endowment, ‘cultures of poverty’, or, as today, poor parenting and even brain development. I am not making this up; see here.

It is not the case that ‘if you are born poor, you die poor’, and the argument for tackling child poverty cannot rest solely on children’s future chances, because these are influenced by a host of other factors. Nor should it need to: the fact that 30% of children in the UK were in families with inadequate incomes in 2008/9, and that 14% were persistently in this situation between 2004 and 2007 should be enough.

Unfortunately, the coalition’s pretentious and ill-informed claim that it is tackling ‘the causes’ rather than ‘the symptoms’ of poverty does not encourage confidence in its ability to address this continuing shortfall in family income.

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.