Households with a baby under one year of age are one of the six priority family groups highlighted as being at higher risk of poverty. A third, 34%, of children in households with a child under one were in relative poverty in 2017-20. This compares to 24% of children overall.
Indeed, for some households having a baby can be a trigger point for falling into, or deeper into, poverty. This is the case for the first baby and any other subsequent children. A holistic approach is necessary to tackle the root causes of poverty.
There are a range of factors that explain why households with babies under one are at greater risk of poverty. These include: the high cost of welcoming a baby into the family and raising the child, the impact that the new baby can have on parents/carers' employment, the adjustment in housing arrangements and the increase in their living costs. Some parents have strong support networks, in the form of family (mostly grandparents) and friends, but many do not.
When developing policies that support families with babies who are at risk of poverty, it is necessary to also consider the wellbeing of the child. That is, the context in which a child is raised, the importance of the home environment, relationships and attachment, alongside factors including parental education and household income.
From a policy perspective, it is relevant to question what type of support families with babies would need. Whether it is about boosting income from employment or using other tools like maternity leave policies and pay, gender equality policies or social security to ensure that families live with dignity while they adjust to their new family dynamics.
In most households, income from employment reduces during the first year of having a baby. This is due to reduced income from parental leave or re-adjustment of working patterns. Current parental leave policies do not support gender equal roles, and for those fortunate to be eligible, maternity pay is below the Living Wage so not providing sufficient income to keep families out of poverty. For those who can go back to work, the labour market still needs to support sufficient well-paid, flexible, part-time options and work practices that support and facilitate family life.
Reduced income from employment is felt alongside general increases to the cost of living when welcoming a baby into the household. This includes increases to ongoing expenses, like energy and also increases to food shopping bills. Some families will have to make changes to their home or even move to a new home, to provide space for their growing family. Access to financial advice can be beneficial, but for some welfare advice service fees can be a barrier to debt recovery.
The financial pressures which can be exacerbated by pregnancy and the birth of a child can result in parents needing to access social security payments. This is particularly complicated in cases where parents are re-accessing these or accessing for the first time. In Scotland, the wide range of social security payments available to parents has positively impacted on household finances. However, this is against the backdrop of damaging benefit restrictions from UK Government and change in the general economic climate.
There is a strongly funded Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) offer in Scotland, though this starts from the age of two for eligible families. Further improving childcare affordability and accessibility, by making it available directly after parental leave, can support parents' return to work. Limited affordable childcare combined with problematic shared parental leave policies, can make it difficult for mothers, and particularly lone parents, to return to work.
Importantly, there needs to be a balance between policies that boost income from employment, progress gender equality at home and in the workplace, and target inequalities in children's early childhood environments. Evidence suggests that policies need to focus on three main pillars:
- Comprehensive support for families in early parenting to foster development of strong attachment and parent-child relationships
- Boosting income and reducing social segregation
- High quality mental health care and reducing barriers for parents in accessing that care
There is an important role to be played by the provision of advice and support for new families. This needs to be accessible, timely, and contextual in that it should be tailored to the unique needs and circumstances of a family. During the COVID-19 pandemic there was a reduction in the level of face to face support new families would receive pre-and post-birth of their child. Recovering this support appears to be essential for families, particularly those navigating parenthood for the first time, in order to access all the benefits and in-kind support they are eligible for.
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