What you Need to Know About the Impact of Poverty on Child Abuse

What you need to know about the impact of poverty on child abuse

This week I am hearing continually on the news about the steep rise in numbers of people living in poverty in the UK – high rates of extreme poverty which are affecting millions of families with children right now. While I do talk about this on my training, often any reference to the relationship to abuse and poverty is fairly fleeting. In actual fact, awareness of the issue is crucial if we are genuinely seeking to ensure all our children are safeguarded and can achieve the best possible outcomes.

  • Poverty affects one in four children in the UK today. There were 4 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2015-16. That’s 30 per cent of children, or 9 in a classroom of 30.
  • Child poverty reduced dramatically between 1998/9-2011/12 when 800,000 children were lifted out of poverty. Since 2010, child poverty figures have flat-lined.
  • As a direct result of tax and benefit decisions made since 2010, the Institute for Fiscal Studies project that the number of children in relative poverty will have risen from 2.3 to 3.6 million by 2020 (poverty figures before housing costs).
  • Work does not provide a guaranteed route out of poverty in the UK. Two-thirds (67 per cent) of children growing up in poverty live in a family where at least one member works.
  • Families experience poverty for many reasons, but its fundamental cause is not having enough money to cope with the circumstances in which they are living. A family might move into poverty because of a rise in living costs, a drop in earnings through job loss or benefit changes.
  • Child poverty blights childhoods. Growing up in poverty means being cold, going hungry, not being able to join in activities with friends. For example, 59 per cent of families in the bottom income quintile would like, but cannot afford, to take their children on holiday for one week a year.
  • Poverty is also related to more complicated health histories over the course of a lifetime, again influencing earnings as well as the overall quality – and indeed length – of life. Men in the most deprived areas of England have a life expectancy 9.2 years shorter than men in the least deprived areas. They also spend 14% less of their life in good health. Women share similar statistics.
  • Childcare and housing are two of the costs that take the biggest toll on families’ budgets. When you account for childcare costs, an extra 130,000 children are pushed into poverty.

(Updated November 2017. All poverty figures are after housing costs, except where otherwise indicated) – Child Poverty Action Group

In September 2012, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation launched a new four-year programme to produce evidenced and costed anti-poverty strategies for all age groups and each nation of the UK. JRF commissioned a range of evidence and policy reviews to examine the links between poverty and specific topics and look for evidence about effective solutions in policy and practice.

Poverty is neither a necessary nor sufficient factor in the occurrence of childhood abuse and neglect. Many children who are not from families in poverty will experience childhood abuse and neglect in some form and most children in families who are living in poverty will not experience it. Childhood abuse and neglect is caused by many interlocking factors . Nevertheless there is lots of evidence that suggests that poverty leads to child abuse.

There is a strong association between families’ socio-economic circumstances and the chances that their children will experience abuse and neglect. This association exists across developed countries, types of abuse, definitions, measures and research approaches to both poverty and abuse and neglect, and different child protection systems. This conclusion can be drawn despite major limitations in the evidence from the UK.

  • The relationship is a gradient between family socio-economic circumstances and rates of childhood abuse and neglect across the whole of society, not a simple divide between families in poverty and those which are not. This finding mirrors evidence about inequities in child health and educational outcomes. The greater the economic hardship the greater the likelihood and severity of childhood abuse and neglect.
  • The limited evidence from the UK, and uncertainties about transferring evidence from other countries, particularly the US where the majority of research has taken place, makes it hard to determine whether or to what extent some groups of children and some forms of abuse and neglect are more closely related to socio-economic circumstances than others.
  • Although there is evidence of ‘bias’ in child protection systems which affects the proportion of children in different circumstances that have contact with child protection services, this is insufficient to explain or undermine the core association between poverty and the prevalence of childhood abuse and neglect.

The family stress model is central to any explanation as to why the association between poverty and child abuse is so pronounced. The evidence suggests that this interacts with other factors affecting parenting to increase or reduce the chances of childhood abuse and neglect:

  • parenting capacity, for example affected by mental and/or physical illness, learning disabilities, (lack of) prior education, shame and stigma;
  • family capacity for investment, for example to buy care, respite or better environmental conditions;
  • negative adult behaviours, for example domestic violence or substance use, perhaps provoked or exacerbated by family stress;
  • positive adult and child behaviours, promoting social support and resilience;
  • external neighbourhood factors: the social and physical environment.

These interactions between poverty and other contributory factors are complex and frequently circular. For example, poverty increases the risk of mental ill-health and mental ill-health increases the likelihood of poverty. Parental substance use accompanied by poverty is more likely to lead to contact with child protection services than substance use in a position of affluence. The conception of poverty as a contributory causal factor is supported by evidence from experimental or quasi-experimental studies in the US that raising the income of families in poverty had a statistically significant impact in reducing childhood abuse and neglect rates.

Read the JR research on child abuse and poverty here: https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/relationship-between-poverty-child-abuse-and-neglect-evidence-review