Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Welfare reform will increase the numbers of disabled children.

A key motivation fueling welfare reform is the government’s desire to reduce the numbers of people who qualify for disability benefits – whether this is the out-of-work benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (previously Incapacity Benefit), or the additional costs benefit, Personal Independence Payment (previously Disability Living Allowance).

Yet the impact of welfare reform will also increase the numbers of children growing into adulthood with long-term impairment and/or ill health.

This is for two reasons:

1.  In spite of the recent statistical blip (caused by the reduction in median income rather than by any real decrease), child poverty is expected to rise from 2012-13 and – if nothing stops this upward trend – one in four children will be living in poverty by2020. 

2.  Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to acquire a long-term disabling condition by the time they reach adulthood.

This latter point is revealed by research carried out by the Institute of Health at the University of Warwick which asked the question: “To what extent is early social disadvantage associated with long-term disabling conditions in later childhood?”  Analysing data for 1991 and 2001 from the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Study, they found:

        The odds of developing chronic disabling conditions in later childhood increased as the level of household disadvantage rose
        For children in the most disadvantaged group in 1991, the odds of developing chronic disabling conditions by 2001 were more than twice those for children living in the least disadvantaged households.[i]

In other words, a non-disabled child under the age of 10, whose parents are poor, is more likely to become disabled by the age of 20 than a child whose parents are not poor.

When this research was raised in a recent House of Lords debate, the response was: “The Government are indeed committed to tackling child poverty but believe that it is key to tackle the causes ratherthan to treat the symptoms”.  

The problem is that current welfare reform policies are based on an ideological, rather than an evidence-based, view of what the causes of poverty are (as is very evident from the consultation on changing how to measure child poverty).  At the heart of current welfare policy is the assumption that paid employment is the route – the only route – out of poverty.  This is despite evidence that there are more poor families where at least one member of the household is working than where no-one is working and 61% of children in poverty have at least one parent in work – up from 45% in the mid-nineties.
Rather than focus on the problem of in-work poverty, however, the government’s ideologically driven approach to policy assumes, not only that paid employment is the only route out of poverty, but that it is the motivation and behaviour of individuals that is the key barrier to getting work.  Factors over which people have no control – the number and type of jobs in their locality, ill health or impairment, the behaviour of employers – are no longer recognised.

Poverty and disadvantage are therefore to be tackled by instilling individual responsibility and effort through financial incentives delivered by the benefit system.  It is this ideology which lies behind welfare reform – the aim is that no-one will be better off on benefits than in work, and that financial sanctions will create the motivation to get into work.  This principle – rather than evidence – has driven welfare reform with the result that the legislation and its implementation takes no account of real world factors which create insuperable barriers for many people seeking work and affordable homes.

When we objected in the 1980s to Margaret Thatcher’s ‘There is no such thing as society’ stance, we were objecting to the notion that, in times of need, individuals could only rely on themselves and their families, rather than also on the wider society.  Today we have an approach which is in many ways the other side of the same ideological coin – a refusal to recognise the influence of socio-economic factors on individual life-chances. 

The refusal to acknowledge the influence of factors over which individuals have no control, is storing up significant problems for the future.  It is ruining lives and will cost our society dearly.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the relationship between childhood disability and poverty. Current government policies, by increasing childhood poverty, will increase the numbers of children growing into adulthood affected by impairment and/or long-term ill health.  Once they reach adulthood, however, they will meet a system which tells them that their reduced employment prospects are down to their lack of motivation and their own individual failings, and condemn them to a quality of life which doesn’t really bear thinking about.

[i] This research was summarised by Lord Colin Low in a debate in the House of Lords on 11th October http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201213/ldhansrd/text/121011-0001.htm#12101112000573


  1. Total middle class nonsense based on a liberal ouut of date medical model view of disability. Why portray disabled children as worthless economic burdens simply to satisfy your ideological guilt as you destroy the social model and any hope of inclusion with pity seeking medical model begging??? You have destroyed Pride without Prejudice and use real disabled people as pawns in your dinner table chatter.

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  3. Simon - I'm puzzled at your use of 'middle class', 'nonsense' and 'out of date medical model' in the context of Jenny's blog - setting out as it does the reality that not only is the social contract between citizen and state currently being systematically broken down on ideological grounds ...but that the increasingly pathologising of all who experience/live in poverty - and disabled people - is adding insult to injury. And all of this is being done under the mantle of an ideology built around an utterly false premise, but one which Turn2us' recent report on the generation of stigma set out in frightening clarity.

    The evidence on the transmission of poverty across generations is clear, as is that on the reality that work can only be a route out of poverty if it is sustainable and paid at a living wage level. It is also the case that for many people, the reality is that paid work of the kind that is needed to avoid poverty is simply not achievable - and yet today the Minister for Disabled People remarked that 'many disabled people get better' when justifying the closure of Remploy. In addition, the Warwick analysis adds to the increasing evidence base on the stark reality that children living in poverty face a much increased likelihood of moving into adulthood with an impairment or long-standing health condition...with the resulting increased likelihood of reduced life chances. And they face doing so in an environment which is increasingly hostile to them and likely to blame them for their situation.

    I don't see any of this as anything that supports idle 'chatter' or in any way a challenge to what social model thinking provides.Quite the contrary, I see Jenny's piece as a call to arms to continue to challenge the narrative which is growing again in strength - that "equality for disabled people means them becoming more like the rest of us", which is, of course, something we all thought we'd left behind.

  4. A very good, well thought-through article which makess a lo of sense
    [btw, I've had dealings with simon before. ignore him - he does not understand the issues at hand]