17 April 2019

Stable families and home ownership are the key to reducing poverty

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The Centre for Social Justice recently released an in-depth survey of people across Britain that found family breakdown was one of the most significant determinants of poor life outcomes.

When someone experiences trauma in childhood, linked to an unhappy home life of familial conflict, doubled the probability of someone experiencing homelessness, doubled the probability of someone experiencing trouble with the police, almost doubles the probability that someone underachieves at school, and increases significantly the probability that someone will experience either alcoholism, teen pregnancy, mental health issues and debt problems. Put simply, our home environments growing up have a huge impact on how our lives turn out.

American social scientist Dr Robert Putnam has researched this simple link extensively. His book Our Kids detailed how the most casual interactions between a child and their parents can have a big impact on life outcomes. He found that compliments and physical affection were closely linked with happier, healthier and more prosperous children.

The more compliments and hugs (within reason) a child receives, the better they are likely to develop cognitively. Children raised in positive environments become more adventurous and inquisitive, with better verbal communication and a natural optimism. On the other side of the tracks, a child who is raised constantly receiving abuse or criticism is less likely to develop healthily.

Academics in America tested DNA sequence development in children who faced adversity. They found that children between the ages of three and 15 who experienced violence, low socio-economic status, maternal depression, family disruption, and institutionalisation were more likely to “show signs of accelerated erosion of telomeric ends from an early age”. This is crucial because telomeres protect our genetic development and their erosion is an indicator of shortened life expectancy.

Elsewhere, Professor Gordon Harold of the University of Sussex studied children of divorced parents and found that when “children blamed themselves for the conflicts between their parents, they were more likely to have behavioural problems, such as anti-social behaviour” and when a child felt “threatened, or fearful that the family would split up, the child was more likely to experience emotional problems, such as depression”.

The importance of childhood as a formative period comes up over and over again. A policy programme introduced by Bill Clinton in the mid-90s gave support to families who lived in poor and dangerous neighbourhoods to move to richer and safer neighbourhoods. The theory was that families would benefit from not living around drug use, crime, and anti-social behaviour with little prospects for economic mobility.

Analysis of the programme found that the impact on parents from moving from a poor to rich neighbourhood was minimal. Hardly any got new and better jobs that paid more. However, their children’s life outcomes did improve remarkably. Those that grew up in better off neighbourhoods were more likely to do well in school, go to college, get a job and earn more.

Childhood matters, more than almost any other factor in determining life outcomes. And yet talking about families is almost forbidden outside of the centre-right of British politics.

The Conservative Party has long recognised secure homes, safe communities and stable families as essential for the personal flourishing. Churchill believed being a family man was one of the ‘dominating virtues of human society’.

His wartime Unity Government introduced Family Allowances that became the first form of financial support for families in Britain. Ted Heath introduced Family Income Support which was later replaced with the Family Credit by Margaret Thatcher. David Cameron introduced the Marriage Tax Allowance, now worth £1 billion in tax exemptions for married couples.

With the Liberal Democrats in a Coalition Government they introduced Same Sex Marriage, which rightly allowed gay men and women to marry and form a family. More support was offered to parents in the form of free childcare and relationship support. All of these long-term investments that will help children grow up in happy households with both parents around.

The importance of home ownership

The other key investments in happy childhoods and home lives was the Conservatives’ investment in extending home ownership. Home ownership has fallen in recent years, as rising costs and stagnating wages have created Generation Rent. However, Help to Buy, Share to Buy, and Starter Homes were all admirable efforts to try and get young people and couples on to the housing ladder with more generous mortgages and lower deposits. This effort to increase home ownership is distinctly conservative and also contrary to Labour’s belief that homes are a public good.

It was Thatcher who famously offered every council tenant in Britain the opportunity to buy their council home through Right to Buy, giving them an economic stake in society for the first time. It was Harold Macmillan who built more than 300,000 new homes for young families at risk of falling into squalid Victorian living conditions. Housebuilding slowed in the aftermath of the financial crisis but has now returned to near pre-crisis levels, and the Conservatives in government have helped deliver 346,000 new affordable homes (more than Labour did in its last seven years in government).

Why are homes so important? Because they are again linked to better physical and mental health and lower rates of poverty. The probability of falling in to poverty if you become a homeowner falls by 15 per cent. More than a third of renters (both private and social) fall below the poverty line, higher than the rate for owner occupiers. This has partly been driven by higher costs of housing, a CSJ report from last year found low skilled workers “on the average salaries in their respective sectors would need to put away 10 per cent of their wages for over 100 years in order to afford a deposit on the average UK home”. Between the late 90s and today, the number of people in the private rented sector who fall beneath the poverty line has increased from 2.1m to 4.5m.

Home ownership is more than just a rent-free financial asset, it offers individuals and families stability. Nicholas Pestinas and Eric Belsky in their book Low-Income Homeownership: Examining the Unexamined Goal cited US research showing homeownership in a family was linked to the probability of parents being engaged citizens active in community affairs and local government, but also with children graduating from high school and going to college.

Pestinas and Belsky tested the effect of home ownership on child cognitive and behavioural outcomes and found that “when compared to renting, owning a home leads to a higher-quality home environment, where home environment is measured by indexes of the cognitive support/physical environment and the emotional support of children in that home… [for home owner families] a child’s cognitive outcomes are up to 9 per cent higher in math and 7 per cent higher in reading achievement [compared to children from non-home owning families]”, and finally, “a child’s behaviour problems is up to 3 per cent lower if the child resides in an owned home”.

Stable families and secure homes are clearly linked to better life outcomes for children and parents. The aversion to both remain hallmarks of Labour Party policy. In post-Brexit Britain the Government’s efforts to tackle social deprivation and boost economic mobility should focus on expanding the franchise of home ownership and ensuring families have the support they need. Home ownership rates in the UK are some of the lowest in the EU and western World. The UK has a rate of ownership at 63.5 per cent, while the EU28 average is 70 per cent, Spain is at 77.1 per cent and Poland is at 84.2 per cent.

The Conservative Party has pushed for better protections for homeless people since 2015, largely through the Housing First model. This is the correct thing to do, given we have 79,880 statutory homeless households and 123,000 children currently living in temporary accommodation. A CSJ report this year found as of March 2018 there were 746 families that had been living in B&B accommodation for over six weeks.

While relationship support was increased under David Cameron it could and should go further. Putting stable families and secure homes at the forefront of centre-right politics can help shape the social mobility and poverty tackling agenda for the next generation.

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Patrick Spencer is Head of the Work and Welfare Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.