If you care about children’s mental health, solving UK poverty should be at the top of your to do list

  • Helen Barnard
  • 19 June 2018
  • Posted in: Healthcare

When was the last time you got angry about poverty?  Many teachers, social workers, nurses and support workers have a lot to be angry about; dealing with intense pressures every day, stretching money, time and themselves further and further to meet their communities’ needs. But there is a hidden pressure that underpins many of the difficulties which they help children and families deal with; rising poverty.

There is an overwhelming body of evidence showing that children living in low income families have a much higher risk of experiencing mental health problems than those in higher income families. Varies studies estimate that children in low income families are between twice and four times as likely to experience poor mental health; with the increased risk far higher for some serious conditions. 

Growing up in a family where money just won’t stretch far enough means seeing your parents battle constant anxiety and stress, always working out which bills not to pay, tired because they lie awake worrying about debt pilling up. For some it means living in a cold, damp house where keeping the light and heat on means missing a meal.  Being able to take part in sports, arts and social activities is often out of reach for children in low income families.  Many take care not to ask their parents and hide letters from school because they do not want to increase the pressure on their families or ask for things they know they can’t manage.  Families miss out on the feelings of release, relaxation and bonding that an occasional day out or holiday together can bring. Children and young people growing up in poverty feel less optimistic, less useful and less able to affect their lives than those living in better off families. Many have spoken out about the shame they experience and the myriad ways that they are made to feel undeserving and less than others as they go through school and enter the world.

As a society we believe in compassion and justice, protecting each other from harm. Yet we have managed to design systems which lock millions of children and adults into a daily struggle to make ends meet.  Our housing market forces low income families with children into private rented homes which are expensive and insecure, because we have not provided enough low cost rented homes. Our labour market traps millions in low paid work with little chance of moving up to better pay. Two thirds of children and working age adults in poverty are in now working families.  We all rely on public services like social security, which should be an anchor against powerful currents like rising living costs and low pay.  However, in recent years it has been weakened, leaving more families to be swept into poverty.

In the last two decades, the UK achieved an incredible feat: we more than halved the rate of poverty among pensioners. We also significantly reduced the proportion of children in poverty. However, recently we have seen the first sustained increases in child and pensioner poverty for twenty years.  Around 400 000 children have moved into poverty since 2011/12.  Our research suggests that many more are likely to be swept into poverty in the next few years.

We will always need the highest quality mental health services; but they will be swimming against the tide unless we demand action to loosen the grip of poverty on children’s lives. Three steps would go a long way to creating an environment that enables children from low income families to thrive; provide more low cost rented housing; support people in low paid work to progress; and reform Universal Credit to make sure that people’s incomes keep up with living costs and they can keep more of what they earn.

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  • Article Author

About Helen Barnard

Helen Barnard is Head of Analysis at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. She leads the team undertaking JRF's analysis and data monitoring work, focusing on social, economic and public policy trends and changes affecting people and places in poverty. Helen joined the Foundation in 2005 as a Policy and Research Manager. She has developed and led program…