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Background to this project

The development of this learning object has grown out of a project which ATD Fourth World ran in 2005. This project centred around families living in poverty who have experienced social work services (ATD, 2005). The full report of this project is available on the ATD Fourth World web site at:

The family members from ATD Fourth World:

A key element of these learning resources are the accounts of the families who are experiencing or have experienced poverty. These same families were involved in both the original 'Getting the Right Trainers' project and this one, which has ensured consistency across both projects and allowed the authors to forge a relationship of trust between the families and the development team. In addition to being filmed, these family members were involved in reviewing all the resources and advising on the appropriateness and authenticity of content.

The three authors of this learning object all participated in both projects. They also worked with the same ATD Fourth World families across both of these projects.

The three authors are:

James Blewett is a registered social worker who is Research Director and national chair for Making Research Count, the research dissemination network which in London is based at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, Kings College London. After many years working in different posts of children's services James has taught extensively on social work qualifying and post qualifying programmes. As part of this work he helped developed a module with service users on the impact of poverty and parenting. James has written and researched around number of areas in children's social care including family support, child welfare policy and workforce issues.

Anna Gupta is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the Director of Post-Qualifying Studies in the Department of Health and Social Care. She was been the director of the successful London Post Qualifying Child Care Award at Royal Holloway for seven years and has developed the new Graduate Diploma in Work with Children and Families under the new GSCC Post Qualifying Framework. She is a qualified social worker with extensive experience of child care social work and management, including work as a children's guardian and expert witness in public law family court proceedings. She has published work on various aspects of child welfare, including on working with families living in poverty, childhood neglect and work with black and minority ethnic families. She is currently involved in an evaluation of family group conferences for Black and minority ethnic families, and has recently completed a literature review on child protection systems and international adoption for the Children's High Level Group, a charity working with countries in Eastern Europe to develop their child welfare services.

Jane Tunstill is Visiting Professor and Children's Services Consultant at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, Kings College, London and Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Royal Holloway, London University, where she established the Department of Health and Social Care and was responsible for professional and post qualifying social work education. Much of her research has been in family support and early intervention, and she has undertaken a large number of studies in both the statutory and voluntary sectors. Between 2000 and 2007 she was a Primary Investigator, (Director of the Implementation Module) of the DfES commissioned National Evaluation of Sure Start, responsible for the collection of national data on the roll out, service delivery and workforce issues. Her most recent NESS study is on the Safeguarding Activity of Sure Start Local Programmes and Children's Centres. Her published research studies include three consecutive Department of Health funded national studies, two on the implementation of the 1989 Children Act and one, a national study of the co-ordinating and networking activity of Family Centres, part of the Department of Health Parenting Initiative. She has undertaken a wide variety of commissions for the voluntary child care sector, including a mapping exercise of Family Support Services for FPI (Family and Parenting Institute); and a Cross Sector Scoping Study of the Family Support Workforce for CWDC (Children's Workforce Development Council).

In addition to undertaking research she is very committed to the need for imaginative and proactive dissemination of the knowledge base for children's services. She is member of the editorial board of Children and Society, and along with colleagues, was a founder member of the national social care dissemination project, Making Research Count, which now operates across England with a membership of approximately 250 health and social care agencies. She is a member of the Management Board of CAFCASS, in which role she has corporate sponsorship for research.

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Poverty can make peoples' lives much harder and excludes some people from life chances that others take for granted. Poverty makes parenting a greater challenge and can impair the health and development of children. It is accepted that families living in poverty are over represented as users of some children and families services, including those of an involuntary rather than voluntary nature.

It is therefore essential for all child welfare workers to have an understanding of the nature and impact of poverty and social exclusion, in order to facilitate access to the 'right services at the right time'.

This learning object will introduce you to some key facts and figures related to poverty and children and families.

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Since the nineteenth century when poverty first became the subject of social research there has been extensive debate about what the term poverty means and how to measure it.

The two most frequently used terms applied to poverty are:

  • Absolute poverty
  • Relative poverty

At different points in time and in different societies meanings will vary. In particular there will be different views held of the ways in which these sorts of poverty can have an impact on the lives of children and their families.

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Recent research underlines the fact that many parents in poor environments do not see themselves as 'having problems with parenting' as much as 'having problems with poverty'. For example, research has revealed (Ghate & Hazel, 2002) that for parents living in poor environments, tackling material poverty is their prime concern and poverty the cause of many of their problems.

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Write down what you think are the meanings of the two concepts of absolute and relative poverty in the UK at the beginning of the 21st century. Then compare your definitions with those on the next page

Absolute poverty is ...

Relative poverty is ...

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Absolute poverty definition

The starting point in measuring 'absolute poverty' is whether or not the family has the resources to provide for the basic essentials in terms of food, clothing, and experiences. Whilst United Nations definitions include food, clothing and basic sanitation, the Commission on Families and the Wellbeing of Children (2005) highlights the need for society-specific considerations of what is essential. These include television sets and mobile phones, which nowadays most people would consider as essential because they provide educational input, or enhanced safety.

Relative poverty definition

Currently an accepted definition of ('relative') poverty is income that is below 60% of the median level of the population at that time. The use of the median level, the most common level of income rather than the mean level, meaning the overall average of all incomes, has been adopted as a way of avoiding the distortion created by a relatively small proportion of extremely high earners.

Townsend definition

The following definition of poverty by Peter Townsend, adopted by the Child Poverty Action Group (2004) further illustrates the relative nature of poverty.

Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or are at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies in which they belong.

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Now we'd like you to think about a closely related term, 'social exclusion'. Think about how you might try to define this term and then when you are ready, compare your definition with the one we have provided.

Social exclusion definition

A working definition of social exclusion, as we can see a subjective and objective status which is: 'A working definition of social exclusion is: 'A process that deprives individuals and families, groups and neighbourhoods of the resources required for participation in the social, economic and political activity of a society as a whole. This process is primarily a consequence of poverty and low income, but other factors such as discrimination, low educational attainment and depleted living environments also underpin it. Through this process people are cut off for a significant period in their lives from institutions and services, social networks and developmental opportunities that the great majority of a society enjoys' (Pierson, 2002, p.7)