Hard Edges cut through eternal standoff on social policy

Professor Glen Bramley
Professor Glen Bramley

An I-SPHERE report mapping severe and multiple disadvantage – published today by the Lankelly Chase Foundation – shines a new and striking light on centuries old debate about whether poor people owe their circumstances to structural economic factors or to moral/behavioural failings. Professor Glen Bramley discusses the findings here.

Probably the most recurring debate in social policy, going back over more than two centuries, is whether poor people owe their wretched condition more to structural economic factors or to moral/behavioural failings. Recent debates about the redefinition of poverty, instigated by Iain Duncan Smith but echoing the contribution of Sir Keith Joseph in the 1980s, again appear to raise the profile of the second group of factors, while introducing a longitudinal inter-generational aspect (as in ‘bad parenting’). Stances on this debate fall mainly along predictable political/ideological lines, the Left favouring the structural and the Right favouring the personal accounts, with the academic discipline of social policy falling very heavily into the former camp.

An I-SPHERE report published today by the Lankelly Chase Foundation  Hard Edges: Mapping Severe and Multiple Disadvantage shines a new and striking light on this long-running standoff. The report focusses on a group who may be considered the ‘poster-boys’ (they are mainly male, although not that young),) for the moral/behavioural account, a group who sit on the ‘Hard Edges’ of society and social service provision. It attempts to provide the first comprehensive profile of adults suffering from  ‘Severe and Multiple Disadvantage’ (SMD), namely combinations of homelessness, chronic offending and substance misuse. The study covers England, drawing on and triangulating evidence from national administrative systems and some targeted as well as more general surveys. This group are only a small subset of the poor population (around a quarter of a million working age adults, compared with 7 million in relative low income poverty), but with their complex needs and problems they generate quite high levels of financial and social costs on society while themselves experiencing very poor outcomes and quality of life.

But the really interesting finding, from the viewpoint of the eternal social policy debate, is what emerges from the geographical crunching of the numbers. All three independent administrative datasets yield the same conclusion about SMD prevalence by local authority area. The top 10 areas are –wait for it  – Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Rochdale, Manchester, Hull, Bournemouth, Nottingham,, Stoke, Newcastle. With one exception, it is a roll-call of northern urban and industrial towns, the major sites of de-industrialisation and the highest concentrations of low income poverty. The bottom ten are southern affluent commuter suburbs and semi-rural areas – Wokingham, Central Bedfordshire, South Gloucestershire, , Windsor & Maidenhead  East Riding, Buckinghamshire, Harrow, Richmond-on-Thames, Surrey, West Berkshire.  This is not just a ghostly image on a cartographic Turin shroud; the stigmata of structural material poverty shows through quite clearly, and is confirmed by statistical regression analysis.

So, if it is true even for the groups most stigmatised for their reprehensible moral and behavioural degeneracy, how much more true must it be for the generality of poor people? A working age adult in Middlesbrough is ten times more likely than one in Central Bedfordshire to be in our ‘SMD2/3’ category (experiencing two or more of homelessness, substance misuse and/or offending). This evidence suggests strongly that persistent and widespread material poverty linked to structural labour market weakness generates processes which lead to high levels of SMD.

The second remarkable set of findings give some further insight into these processes. The study highlights evidence from one survey and one administrative data system to show how strong the relationship is between complex needs/SMD and certain background factors going back to childhood.  Adults now experiencing SMD, particularly the most complex ‘SMD3’ cases (experiencing all three of homelessness, substance misuse and/or offending), had very high instances of adverse childhood experiences, ranging from 42% ‘ran away’, 31% left home 16-17, 30% not get on with family,  29% parents violent, 29% parents drug/alcohol problems, through 25% abused, 18% neglected, 17% starved and 18% in care. Only 15% had experienced ‘none of the above’. In other words, it may be argued that the principal determinant of experiencing severe SMD is adverse childhood experiences, in conjunction with the structural poverty highlighted above. Thus, although SMD3 people clearly compound their (and our) problems by bad behavioural choices, they got to that position as adults from a horrendous experience as children, for which they cannot be held responsible.

The background data on education is also extremely interesting. 45-49% of SMD3 people have no qualifications, which is now a relatively rare condition (c.3%) in the younger adult population. Between 48%  and  59% had significant/persistent attendance/truancy problems and 47% were suspended from school. In other words, there is a glaring opportunity for early intervention in the education sector to capture and turn around these potential cases of costly SMD in adult life.

This point is reinforced by another striking finding. A majority of SMD adults (and 59% of the most complex SMD3 group) in the treatment database were parents of children, whether living with them or not, or had other child contact (e.g. through partner’s children). Taken in conjunction with another scary statistic, that  42-48% of SMD offenders were domestic violence perpetrators, this suggests that the danger of today’s generation of SMD adults transmitting problems on through the next generation are extremely high.

So what does this tell us about the eternal debate in social policy?

The ‘Right’ are wrong to claim that much or most poverty is attributable to personal behaviour rather than to structural economic factors. The adult SMD group, for whom dysfunctional behaviour is most likely to be a major factor in their current malaise, is only a small proportion of overall poverty (around 4%). Furthermore, the fact that there are 10 times more of them in Middlesbrough than Central Bedfordshire can only be explained by structural factors. And indeed it is clear that the dominant individual level factors implicated are adverse childhood experiences, for which they cannot be held responsible.

However, the ‘Left’/social policy establishment are wrong to try to claim that current behaviour is not a factor in poverty for any group, when we can see that it clearly is a problem for many of these complex need adults experiencing ‘SMD’. And they are wrong to completely dismiss accounts about ‘transmitted poverty or disadvantage’, between generations, when clearly there are strong influences from childhood on today’s adults with complex needs. The point is to strengthen the interventions at this key stage to avert such trauma and consequent transmission.