1. What works around tackling child poverty – overarching concepts
Key findings – an overarching look at what works to tackle child poverty:
- The child poverty 'system' – that is, the range of factors that influence child poverty – is highly complex. Interventions or policies that focus on a single factor are unlikely to lead to sustainable change.
- Help in navigating the complex provision available, appears to be useful to support people.
- In order to achieve long-term outcomes, evidence points towards a move to flexible and tailored approaches that acknowledge that there is no one typical experience of being poor.
- Evidence suggests that in order to tackle child poverty a combination of universal and targeted policies is ideal. A case by case decision would have to be made, balancing societal needs, barriers and government resources, for each policy.
- Evidence points towards a need to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place to support families on their path out of poverty. This would entail strong in-kind support including a combination of employment, childcare, transport and advice services. Then this would be supported by cash benefits that empower families and foster their own capabilities.
Support in navigating a complex system
The child poverty 'system' – that is, the range of factors that influence child poverty – is highly complex. Every household in poverty will have to navigate this system on some level, and the many organisations, public, private and third sector, that play a role in supporting families in poverty.
While both high and low income households will be navigating the system, for low income households interactions and relationships with the system are more numerous and complex. For example, a high income household can set up an online direct debit payment for a fuel bill and almost forget about it. A low income household is more likely to have to actively manage the payment, negotiating with utility providers, especially if they are struggling to pay or have limited online access due to the cost of data, devices and broadband services. In many circumstances they will be using a pre-payment meter which, as well as being more expensive, again requires active management.
Research has shown that interventions which focus on single factors alone are unlikely to lead to sustainable change. It is help in navigating the 'system' which is probably useful for people, which has led to the Scottish Government emphasis on developing a 'no-wrong door' approach. There are two complicating factors, however:
- First, from an individual's perspective, how the system is set up to support an easy and clear navigation of the range of support available. For some people, a system 'compass and map' will be sufficient. For others, as the Social Innovation Partnership projects exemplify, significant support will be needed to get to that point.
- Secondly, the ability of service providers to offer comprehensive advice and support requires them to have significant knowledge, autonomy and networks for action across a vast range of topics.
The evidence points to some approaches and issues to consider when overcoming these barriers, mainly:
- Improvements in the take-up of means-tested benefits by creating simple and accessible forms and automation of payments supported by an approachable advice service.
- Minimising friction in accessing services by reducing financial barriers. For example, through supporting access to digital devices, electricity for charging them or flexible service access to support those in employment with irregular hours. In Glasgow, financial advice services were integrated into GP practices. The evaluation found that over 12 months, 69% of those referred accessed the service resulting in around £1.5 million of financial gains in total. Specifically, take-up of housing support, disability benefits, or child/maternity benefits increased. The economic analysis estimated a return of £25 for each £1 invested.
- Approaches that acknowledge mental health needs and trauma can help people navigate the system. A recent report highlighted support for a more integrated approach to mental health that embedded mental health provision within wider services, for example in housing services, welfare rights advice services and in education settings. Good examples of this kind of approach were highlighted, with one interviewee talking about the impact that their employability service – operating in partnership with a counselling service – had on them to help them access paid work.
Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence and support for a switch from transactional (A delivers service to B) to relational approaches (focus on whole person/family wellbeing and maximising their capability in accessing and navigating the system). This body of evidence refers to empowering local areas and delivery partners to maximise people's capabilities to navigate the system, which will be covered in further detail in the section below. Additionally, it also importantly facilitates an intersectional approach to supporting families in their unique situations.
A combination of generic policies and tailored approaches
There is widespread support for the overarching Scottish Government approach to tackling child poverty – that is, having a set of legally committed targets, identifying the main drivers of poverty and developing policies that tackle all of them, and acknowledging those most at risk of poverty and purposely aiming to support those families. Indeed other nations developing their own ways to tackle child poverty are developing similar lines of thinking.
Evidence points towards a need for a tailored approach that acknowledges unique challenges faced by local areas as a whole, but also by specific family circumstances – flexible approaches that empower local areas and families.
A recent report by the Poverty and Inequality Commission highlighted the need for more embedded policymaking that avoids current silo approaches to tackling inequality and poverty.The report highlighted that there is no 'one size fits all' silver bullet to narrowing inequalities or addressing poverty. Instead, there should be a clear understanding of the variety of circumstances and challenges different families face to develop solutions that support families in their way out of poverty.
There are some positive examples of policies and programmes focusing on tailored approaches, with varying actions. Some examples are more focused on tackling the depth of poverty, while others look at specific family types.
- Supporting families programme. This is a highly targeted programme originally introduced in England in 2012. The programme aimed to 'turn around' the lives of what they labelled as 'troubled families'. These families were specifically targeted as having very complex needs around crime and antisocial behaviour, education, life chances, living standards, domestic abuse and mental and physical health. Evidence found that the programme had a positive impact on targeted families, particularly for those families with a recent criminal history and for those who had been involved with children's social care. Case study research and a staff survey found positive developments in local service coordination. The latest evaluation plans aim to introduce assessment of the long-term impacts of the programme. It is worth mentioning that the programme has changed quite significantly over time to achieve the results it currently has. The programme started in a very controlled manner, with funding allocated based not only on anticipated need but on a payment by result philosophy. However, many local authorities have now gained 'earned autonomy' status in which funding is provided upfront. While the main focus continues to be on very specific local targeting for families with highly complex needs, some areas have now broadened the approach to also intervene earlier to address issues before they get worse.
- The life programme in Wigan preceded the 'troubled families' agenda mentioned above and learnings from this fed into the development of that specific programme. The life programme in Wigan focused on supporting families to independence, as opposed to managing immediate crises. It worked with ten families (50 family members) with complex needs. By the end of year one, there was a 35% decrease in school attendance issues, an 80% increase in families addressing housing issues and a 75% increase in family members seeking additional support for mental health and substance misuse issues.
- In Scotland, there are some examples of local authorities starting to approach poverty from a collaborative point of view, with a clear focus on supporting families directly. For example, the anti-poverty strategy in Dumfries and Galloway has specific funds that support collaboration, through projects such as the Intensive Family Support service.
- The Social Innovation Partnership (SIP) represents a collaboration of different third sector organisations, working with people facing significant poverty and disadvantages. They use a relational approach to develop wellbeing. Forthcoming evidence shows that people supported by the SIP partners were able to improve their confidence, self-awareness and mental health. Evidence is as yet unclear on whether those improvements support the family in their transition out of poverty or how those interventions support families across their wide range of complex needs.
All of the programmes mentioned above are examples of programmes that do both reactive work to help families in their complex needs, and pre-emptive work that aims to minimise further issues or anticipate future needs.
Balanced use of universal and targeted policies
In Scotland, policies aimed at tackling child poverty include both universal and targeted policies. Universal policies are those that reach everyone, such as free school meals for certain age groups or the early learning and childcare expansion for all three and four year olds. Targeted policies are those that are specifically tailored to particular groups of people, who may have to apply to receive that particular benefit or support, such as the Scottish Child Payment.
There does not appear to be any clear evidence that either targeted or universal services are more effective than the other in tackling child poverty. However, universal policies may have a negative impact on relative child poverty targets. This is because they level up income for all – not only those in poverty.
Universal policies are generally used to maximise reach and fairness, minimise stigma and help maintain public support. There is some evidence that introducing a universal approach to free school meals may slightly increase uptake among low-income children who were already eligible. We know, however, that uptake fluctuates considerably between schools. Other strategies tailored to specific barriers faced by schools have also been found effective, namely around pupil and parental involvement, support and guidance in application and engagement with catering staff to encourage uptake. 
While universal policies tend to be more expensive, the key benefits are that they reach more people, do not create a disincentive to someone trying to increase their income (or assets), tend to cost less to administer per recipient and involve fewer 'costs of compliance' for someone claiming them. In turn, issues associated with means-tested benefits include 'significant administrative costs, lower rates of take-up and labour market and savings disincentives'.
Other evidence suggests that in order to tackle child poverty, a more targeted approach focused on benefiting families in need is more effective. Research from ODI and UNICEF finds that OECD countries that rely more heavily on means testing achieve lower poverty and higher inequality reduction compared with systems that rely on universal approaches. The evidence found that systems that combine universal policies with additional targeted support for low income households appear to have the highest poverty reduction impact. This analysis does not take account of the cost of these policies, however. Developing benefits that are more targeted at children in poverty can mean lower overall policy costs for the same estimated reduction in child poverty.
Various modelling work has shown that social security spend would be more effective at tackling child poverty with a greater focus on families rather than low income households as a whole. For example, this could be through reversing the set of historic reforms which includes the benefit cap, the two-child limit, and the removal of the family element of Universal Credit and Child Tax Credits, rather than retaining the £20 uplift to Universal Credit.   Analysis of 2012 data from 30 European countries found that benefits targeted at children in low income families tended to have a higher impact on risk of child poverty than those targeted at low income adults (if choosing between the two), although effectiveness depends on policies being well-aligned with their socio-demographic settings.
Consideration of cash and in-kind benefits
There are some benefits that focus on giving money directly, as for example the school clothing grant. Others instead provide families with a product directly, like the baby box. There are yet other benefits which provide a free service to support families, such as the parental employability support fund which provides help to gain qualifications and improve skills or work experience, as well as money advice and motivational support.
Evidence of impact varies depending on the type of need supported or benefit provided. In broad terms, there is a need for these benefits to ensure a strong infrastructure that supports families, particularly around the known main drivers of poverty. For example, international evidence shows a positive impact on child poverty in the delivery of in-kind joined-up services that support parents to take on paid work – either through providing comprehensive and flexible childcare or adequate transport links. However, the evidence also highlights the importance of cash-first support for families.
To take food security as one example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme in the US provides electronic vouchers to families which can be used to purchase items from grocery stores. It has been found to have a significant reduction effect on the US child poverty rate, and particularly the prevalence of extreme child poverty. However during recent lockdowns and periods of home learning in Scotland, direct payments were preferred by parents eligible for free school meals on the basis of low income. Cash-first approaches provided flexibility, dignity, safety and convenience, whereas cards or vouchers could be unsuitable in some circumstances and food parcels sometimes less able to meet individual needs and preferences. In addition, with both free school meals and direct replacements, they are only useful to families if the food meets their child's needs, in terms of preference, dietary restrictions, quantity and quality. Following the cash-first approach taken during the pandemic, Dumfries and Galloway's evaluation of emergency food provision concluded that the cash-first system should be continued.
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