Unequal childhoods: Why we need a real assault on child poverty

Successive governments have failed to address the problems of child poverty. Robert Putnam’s book ‘Our Kids’, reviewed here, points to the need for a more comprehensive and systematic approach.

I was just finishing Robert Putnam’s book Our Kids last week when I heard the news about Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘all-out assault on poverty’. Cameron’s speech at the Tory conference was greeted with considerable scepticism by his critics – and rightly so, given the current direction of the government’s policies on welfare.


When it comes to children in particular, there’s quite a dispute about the figures. Government statistics claim that 2.3 million children are currently living in poverty in the UK – a figure that dropped slightly during the New Labour era, but has now levelled off. Even these figures show a rise in child poverty in households with working parents.

However, other estimates are much higher. The Child Poverty Action Group puts the total at 3.7 million, seemingly based on the same government figures. Unicef’s figure is roughly the same; while the campaigning group End Child Poverty puts it at four million – that is, one in three UK children.

The UK regularly scores very highly on international comparisons of inequality, and it appears that the differential between the poor and the very rich (known as the Gini coefficient) has continued to rise after taking massive upward leaps in the 1980s and 1990s.

Despite Cameron’s ‘assault’, it seems very unlikely that the government will meet the official commitment to eliminate child poverty by 2020, enshrined in law by the last Labour government. Indeed, its austerity policies are having a profoundly harmful impact on children at the bottom of the scale. The Children’s Society says that 200,000 children are being forced into poverty by the government’s benefits cap; while cuts in child tax credits will particularly impact on the working poor.

Meanwhile, the government is seeking to change – or in its own terms ‘strengthen’ – the ways in which child poverty is measured. Legislation due to come before parliament in the coming months looks likely to incorporate indicators like drug addiction, long-term parental relationships and educational achievement into the existing measures.

It would seem that the government is trying to eliminate child poverty by simply manipulating the statistics. The Child Poverty Action Group has called on the government to ‘fix the problem, not the warning light’; and the Children’s Society agrees. Cameron’s ‘all-out assault’ may turn out to be little more than a dishonest conjuring trick.


Robert Putnam’s Our Kids provides a powerful, and sometimes chilling, picture of what this growing inequality means for children in the United States. I confess that I approached the book rather warily. Putnam’s influential theory of ‘social capital’, propounded in his book Bowling Alone, has attracted widespread criticism. For some – myself included – it seems to reflect a conservative nostalgia for an imagined golden age of American suburbia, where people were apparently more public spirited and civically inclined than they are today. I expected Our Kids to have more of the same, and my fears were initially confirmed when the book began with a suspiciously rosy account of Putnam’s childhood in his home town of Port Clinton, Ohio.

However, Putnam’s story here is fundamentally about growing inequality – and the decline in social capital he identified in Bowling Alone fits into this broader narrative. He presents convincing evidence that the US has become progressively more unequal since the 1960s: the poor have become poorer, the very rich have become richer, and the middle ground has begun to disappear. Social segregation has grown, to the point where children living no more than a mile or two apart have utterly different lives. Interestingly, Putnam’s analysis suggests that social class is a much more significant factor here than either race or gender, although he also takes these into account.

This is not a ‘mono-causal’ explanation, but a story in which multiple factors inter-relate and reinforce each other. In Putnam’s account, poverty both causes and is made worse by other factors, such as inadequate schooling, inconsistent parenting, family breakdown and the collapse of local community. In many respects, his analysis confirms that of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level, which draws very clear connections between inequality and whole range of other social problems such as violent crime, poor mental and physical health, and educational underachievement.

Our Kids is a really well-written book, which is both accessible for the general reader and backed up by rigorous empirical research. Its authority derives from the way it combines detailed qualitative case studies of individual young people and their families, set in particular locations, with the big picture gained from national statistics. Time and again, the national figures form a ‘scissors graph’, which shows the gap between rich and poor steadily widening over the past three decades. As the book proceeds, the weight of evidence – both qualitative and quantitative – becomes quite overwhelming.

At the point at which this reader’s mood began to spiral into despair, Our Kids concludes with some very specific suggestions for changes in social policy. It presents concrete, evidence-based proposals, for example to prevent residential segregation, to extend support for single parents, to improve funding for pre-school education, to ensure free provision of extra-curricular activities, and to encourage apprenticeship and mentoring programmes.

Yet what is truly depressing is that current UK policy on social welfare seems to be steadfastly heading in the opposite direction. The title of Putnam’s book is not intended to reinforce any sense of ‘us and them’, but precisely to challenge it: poor kids are our kids. We need to take collective responsibility for improving their lives. I would like to believe that David Cameron’s assault on poverty will achieve this, but I do not remotely imagine that it will.


Infographic by the Children’s Society

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