Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Bad parenting, not lack of money is harming poor kids

"Chinese children from poor families as a group do better than all other non-poor children (except non-poor Chinese children). Growing up in an ethnically Chinese family in England is enough to overcome all of the disadvantages of being poor. This surely has much to do with parental aspirations and attitudes. It would be a betrayal of all our children if we were to say that what this group already achieves cannot be achieved by all British children."

This is a report written by British Labour MP Frank Field, who was commissioned by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition to investigate child poverty.   It has produced a muted response in leftwing circles as he has effectively destroyed the myth that intergenerational poverty can be fixed by increasing benefits.  The report in full is here (PDF).

One of the standards of the left is that one of the biggest issues in modern society is child poverty.  That doesn't mean children who are malnourished (in fact many of them are overweight), it doesn't mean they are homeless, or lack access to health care or schooling.  No, it is about relative poverty, so it means households where children don't get to go on holiday, where they have few choices of clothes, they might not have a Playstation/Wii/XBox, they might not have broadband internet access, there might not be a family car.   In fact, poverty today would have been middle class comfort a couple of generations ago, and positively wealthy for most people on the planet.  

Frank Field agreed to help the government, much to the chagrin of his Labour colleagues, he agreed, largely because he was more interested in getting results than in snarking on the opposition benches.  He has a particular interest in child poverty, but his report also indicates his own increased disaffection with the "more welfare fixes poverty" school of "thought":

Since 1969 I have witnessed a growing indifference from some parents to meeting the most basic needs of children, and particularly younger children, those who are least able to fend for themselves. I have also observed how the home life of a minority but, worryingly, a growing minority of children, fails to express an unconditional commitment to the successful nurturing of children.

The issue about child poverty is not about kids not getting enough stuff, it is about whether being raised in families with low incomes damages their "life chances" and whether the opportunities for children to develop, excel and pursue lives that realise their potential are significantly harmed by poverty.    

The standard leftwing answer is that it is all about money.  Groups such as the self-styled "Child Poverty Action Group" campaign for higher benefits, essentially claiming the solution is simply to give the parents of such children more of other people's money.   In particular they support such money being without conditions, but simply about "fairness" (as if it is unfair to make more money than others).   In other words if only poorer families got more money then their kids would perform as well as families from middle income households.

Field's report disputes this saying that the real indicator of a child's life chances is not money it is quality of parenting.   That factor above all others is critical.  His report makes for stark reading and has thrown the proverbial cat among the pigeons for statements like this:

(This report) questions the almost universal assumption over the last hundred years that increases in income alone will automatically lead to social progress. Over the post-war period we have experienced a considerable increase in the real incomes and yet we still find that too many children now start school who are unable to make the most of their school lives. It is from this group that tomorrow’s unemployed and low paid will be overwhelmingly drawn.

Why should this be so? The Foundation Years argues that the exclusive concern of the adult world about how financial poverty affects children’s life chances has prevented a more comprehensive understanding of why life’s race is already determined for most poor children before they even begin their first day at school.

In other words, despite massive improvements in real standards of living, there is still an underclass of children who grossly under perform at school and then end up being those who end up being the poorest adults (and the cycle repeats). 

Minette Martin in the Sunday Times (subscription only) noted that parental lack of attention and ignorance is a core issue.   Apparently children from poor homes in the UK hear 616 words spoken an hour on average, compared to 2,153 words an hour in more wealthier homes.  She points out that by age 3 this is 30 MILLION less words that the poorer children are hearing, and learning and remembering.   A gap in language and understanding that is almost impossible to get back.   

Field also notes the role that planners and state intervention in housing has had:

Post-war housing policy has also enjoyed more than a walk-on role. Mega developments, sweeping up communities, shaking them around, and scattering them onto new estates, often on the periphery of the towns where they had long established roots, also played a major part in the break-up of the extended, matriarchal family hierarchy and in so doing destroyed the support that this informal network provided for couples as they began the process of starting a family.

He doesn't note that this was driven by the Labour Party, and Conservatives happily went along with the clearance of the poor into estates that were away from their voters.   Field notes how little is done to make fathers pay for their children:

communities have insisted from time immemorial that men who beget children should be made to support those children and the children’s mother, usually by marriage. In a fit of what at best can be charitably described as absent mindedness, or of not wishing to cause a fuss, a whole number of governments forgot that one of its primary duties in safeguarding the wellbeing of children is to enforce the father’s financial responsibility.

Absolutely key is parents being interested in their child's education.  Field's research indicated this is
independent of the parents' own education.  The report noted an effect of the early home learning environment on age five outcomes over and above parental background factors such as socio-economic status, maternal education and family income.

Yes in other words parents who give a damn, who read to their kids, who are involved in their education and help them make far more of a difference than money.   Single parents families are also an issue as:

Fathers’ interest and involvement in their children’s learning is statistically associated with better educational outcomes (higher attainment as well as more positive attitudes and better behaviour) even when controlling for a wide variety of other influencing factors. A number of studies both from the United States and the UK have shown that father involvement has an independent effect from mother involvement and effects have been demonstrated both for younger children and for later educational outcomes.
However, this doesn't fit the Marxist monologue that it is all about wealth and if only the rich had more of their money taken and given to the poor unearned, it would all be better. 

Education doesn't get off the hook either:

Most studies also find that schools, and in particular teachers, have an impact on the gap in attainment between the richest and the poorest...Teaching quality was a significant predictor of progress in both reading and mathematics over Key Stage 2. Analysis of the attainment of older children showed that being taught by a high quality (top 25%) rather than low quality (bottom 25%) teacher added 0.425 of a GCSE grade per subject

In other words the fatuous self-serving nonsense peddled by teachers' unions that they can't be paid or judged on performance is just that.   Good teachers make a difference, which means setting their pay by some central government fiat is as nonsensical as setting the pay of chefs by the same means, but far more damaging.

No person who genuinely gives a damn about fixing child poverty would simply reject these findings out of hand and continue with the mindless belief that the welfare state can fix the problems of intergenerational poverty.  It is about parents, it is about education, it is not about money.
Frank Field's recommendations are heavy on intervention.  He wants monitoring of children in what he calls the "Foundation Years" (the first five years of life) and a concentration on support of parents and training of parents for those years.   He recommends freezing child benefit (which gives parents money for having children at all income levels, but which the government will be capping at parents who earn no more than £44,000 p.a. (well above the average income in the UK) and redirecting money towards services for children in the first five years of life.   I think far more needs to be done to change the incentives around breeding when one can't afford to do so,  and that education needs to be freed from the shackles of state control and direction.   

Yet what is more important is to finally ditch once and for all the Marxist based myth that the reason children from low income backgrounds do badly is about money (and the solution is to pillage money from other people), when it is about parenting.   If groups like CPAG really gave a damn about child poverty they would cease their obsession with increasing taxes and benefits, and engage in hands on assistance for parents who need help, and encourage people who are in poverty to concentrate on improving their own lives, not on breeding. 

1 comment:

Craig said...

Great post Scott.

It's also interesting that beneficiary parents potentially get more time with their kids than wealthier parents yet apparently aren't using it to improve their kids' chances.