Disadvantage and worklessness: a longitudinal perspective

Rob DaviesRob Davies is Public Affairs Manager for CLOSER, the UK longitudinal studies consortium funded by the ESRC and the Medical Research Council. CLOSER brings together eight biomedical and social longitudinal studies, with participants born as early as the 1930s to the present day.

Before I worked for CLOSER I helped run a charity supporting vulnerable people with different needs, including addictions, mental health problems, debt or homelessness. I saw first-hand the damaging effects of these complex issues and the barriers people face in their attempts to get back to work and take advantage of opportunities many of us take for granted.

So when the government announced a commitment to create a country that works for everyone I, like many others, hoped this signalled a new approach in tackling some of the fundamental and seemingly intractable issues we face in our society today.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) recently announced new plans to help workless families break the cycle of disadvantage. Improving lives: Helping Workless Families sets out proposals to improve outcomes for children who grow up in workless families and face multiple disadvantages.  It draws on analysis of three longitudinal studies in the CLOSER consortium – Understanding Society, the Millennium Cohort Study, and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.

In the foreword of the report, Damian Green (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) says we need to understand the complex issues that some families face and develop a new approach to tackling poverty and engrained disadvantage. Analysis of the longitudinal evidence has provided new insights into these issues, particularly on the impact that workless parents can have on their children over the lifecourse.  Combining survey and administrative data has also shed new light on the impact to children’s educational attainment if they live in a workless family.

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The DWP analysis is pretty stark – children growing up in workless families are almost twice as likely as children in working families to fail at all stages of their education, and workless families are considerably more likely to experience problems with their relationships, have poorer mental health, and be in problem debt. An intergenerational cycle of disadvantage emerges if left untackled, with children in workless households more likely to repeat the poorer outcomes of their parents. Two factors that feature particularly strongly in the lives of workless families are parental conflict and poor parental mental health.

Commitments to help address these issues place greater emphasis on helping people back to work and tackling the disadvantages associated with worklessness. Specific priorities include reducing parental conflict through a new programme and tackling dependency to help those dependent on drugs and alcohol back into employment. National indicators will track progress over time and a new evidence resource developed to support a range of professionals commission and deliver effective, evidence-based interventions in their communities.

Does this signal a new approach at the heart of government? Recognising that multiple disadvantages and complex needs are issues best tackled through a lifecourse approach, using evidence from multiple longitudinal studies and (where possible and appropriate) combining this with administrative data seems to suggest it does. This is welcome news, but more can be done. A holistic approach is required to tackle the root causes of disadvantage.

The UK’s longitudinal studies are world-class research resources which enable us as a country to track, measure and understand complex change. Crucially, they provide unique insights about the dynamics of individual behaviour and the influence of early life circumstances on later life outcomes. Longitudinal evidence has more of a part to play across a range of domains, including health, education and employment – for example, the government’s Industrial Strategy presents a timely opportunity to commit long-term investment in these vital resources and capitalise on one of our world-leading strengths. Continued investment in these studies will be crucial to the future success of the UK’s science and research base and will help inform policymakers for generations to come.

Societal issues are complex and multi-faceted – to address these requires a cross-departmental approach that recognises operating in isolation from each other simply does not work. If we are truly serious about tackling the entrenched issues I witnessed in my previous role this new approach by the DWP is a positive step. This needs to be emulated across government in their efforts to “build a country that works for everyone” and help struggling families and their children overcome their problems and improve their lives.


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