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Understanding Childhoods: Growing Up in Hard Times

There are 4 million children living in poverty the UK. This number has been increasing in recent years and is forecast to rise further still, with five million children expected to live in poverty by the end of the decade.

We know that poverty has a profound impact on children's education, health and future chances in life, and yet too often policy is failing to improve the
lives of children growing up in low income families. The most radical programme of welfare reform since the creation of the welfare state is resulting in ongoing reductions to the incomes of some of the most economically fragile households. The repeal of the 2010 Child Poverty Act means that the Government no longer faces a legal obligation to eradicate child poverty by 2020 and local authorities are no longer legally bound to produce Child Poverty Strategies. Increased devolution and localism mean that there is more scope for a postcode lottery when it comes to tackling poverty in childhood.

In this context, increasing our understanding of poverty in childhood becomes crucial. We already know a good deal about the issue – about trends over
time, causes and effects, and the lived experiences of poverty at given points in children’s lives.

But we know relatively little about children’s experiences of growing up in poverty as these are played out over time. We also know little about the ways in which children in low-income households negotiate key transitions in their lives, or the many shifting facets of life more broadly.

In order to gain an in-depth understanding of these issues, The Children’s Society is partnering with senior scholar Professor Tess Ridge, OBE at The University of Bath, to conduct a qualitative, longitudinal study: 'Understanding Childhoods: Growing Up in Hard Times.' This report marks the launch of this study over three years, which began in 2015 with a sample of 60 young people who are interviewed annually.

Here we share some preliminary insights from our cross-sectional analysis of the first wave of data. We focus on four key themes: residential transience, experiences of school, neighbourhoods, and money and material things. In the discussion of residential transience we highlight how frequent house moves can be a striking and problematic feature of life, albeit one that is normalised. We note how, for those experiencing transience, a sense of control can help to mitigate the negative effects of housing instability. We also explore how transience can entail a search for rootedness, which in turn can
lead to outcomes that – ironically – present further challenges in everyday life.

In the discussion of school, we look into the ways in which school life can be difficult for some young people living in lowincome households, particularly at secondary level. We consider the challenges sometimes faced accessing adequate, desirable food in a non-stigmatising way. And we note how the costs of school for those in poverty can be prohibitive of certain learning and enrichment opportunities and how issues of poverty can be treated as behavioural infringements and penalised accordingly. We also note how maintaining friendships outside school or during school transitions can be especially hard for young people with less access to communication technologies than their wealthier peers.

In the discussion of neighbourhood, we explore participants’ experiences of living in deprived areas, reflecting on common concerns around safety
and violence, noise and traffic, aggressive adults and neighbours, bullying and gangs, and animals, rubbish and mess. We also explore the powerlessness felt by children to change their physical environment despite a desire to do so.

In the discussion of money and material things we consider how children living in poverty have varying experiences of these, but note the keen awareness of financial hardship and the strong desire to fit in with peers, even though fitting in can come at a cost. We also explore the lengths to which some children go in protecting their families from the effects of poverty, sometimes going without and sometimes contributing their own money to
household budgets. We highlight the importance of wider kin networks for the material wellbeing of young people living in low-income households, and point to the resourcefulness of those young people and families who get by, and struggle to get ahead, with the odds stacked against them.

In each of these thematic areas we see that for young people growing up in poverty, childhood can be marked by a series of struggles. However, we also highlight their active involvement in managing their lives, and point to some of the potential routes to changing the policy context which can be so formative of their experiences.

As we move into longitudinal analysis we will publish further outputs which will deepen and expand our understanding of some of the themes covered in this report and explore other themes, such as poor health, safety and violence, family networks and resources, and identity and belonging. Importantly, our analysis will begin to consider the ways in which the different thematic areas interact with each other so that we can explore how multiple disadvantage plays out in our participants’ lives, shaping material, psychological, social and temporal dimensions of experience. Through these endeavours we hope to explore additional routes to challenging poverty and inequality, and the effects of these on some of the most disadvantaged young people in the country.

The preliminary findings reported here provide further evidence for some of the policy recommendations that The Children's Society has made previously.