Family Separation & Poverty: What Works?

Family Separation & Poverty: What Works?

Tavistock Institute & JRF launch the fourth briefing in the series on family poverty and relationships.

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Tavistock Institute & JRF launch the fourth briefing in the series on family poverty and relationships.

Last week the government proposed changes to the Child Poverty Act 2010 by replacing the current indicators of relative income poverty with measures of children’s life chances – household worklessness and education attainment[1]. The intention is to better measure the ‘root-causes’ of poverty, with family breakdown cited as one of the most central causes rather than income[2]. But what are the links between poverty and relationship breakdown? A new briefing on family separation & poverty, is launched today by the Tavistock Institute supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).

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Family breakdown is seen by the government as a crucial root cause of poverty and negative child outcomes, with a recent policy drive to improve support for couple relationships[3]. Reducing poverty by fiscal means is viewed as not the solution, and broader  factors to improve children’s life chances, such as family background and stability, parenting, and education opportunities are seen as more important than money[4].

Our research confirms that family separation can cause or increase family poverty and that the government’s emphasis on improving the quality and stability of couple relationships is an important anti-poverty measure, to help avoid relationship breakdown or ensure it is better managed when couples do part. However, the evidence is clear that income does matter – and that poverty and lack of money is in fact a major cause of relationship breakdown, as well as a consequence of it.

Families in poverty are stressed, which puts pressure on relationships by increasing couple conflict, which results in high risks of relationship breakdown among families on low incomes. Relationship breakdown in turn increases poverty, especially for mothers whose childcare responsibilities as single parents take them out of work. Fathers can also experience poverty post-separation especially those in low-paid or no employment. All children experience short-term negative outcomes of family separation but this tends to fade over time, unless there is existing poverty or low income, maternal mental health difficulties or parental conflict.

So lack of money and relationship breakdown are both important ‘root causes’ as well as consequences of poverty. While it is important that wider factors beyond money are recognised in measuring child poverty, if income indicators are taken out of the equation, then this misses the fact that poverty itself causes family breakdown.

To reduce family poverty we need relationship support and couple counselling to reduce conflict in all types of relationships – whether married, cohabiting or separated. But these services need to better reach families poverty with high risks of separation. Stable couple relationships post-separation also help ensure child maintenance is in place, which is important in lifting lone mothers and their children out of poverty, alongside  affordable and good quality childcare so lone mothers can stay in or increase employment. For families that do separate, holistic support for mothers, fathers and children, addressing multiple needs, helps alleviate the negative effects.

Read the policy briefing on Family Separation and Poverty here.

Look out for the next policy briefing in the series by following us on Twitter or subscribing to our ‘Personal Relationships and Poverty’ mailing list here.

Project Lead: Laura Stock.


[1] Welfare Reform and Work Bill 2015-16. Available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2015-2016/0051/16051.pdf
[2] Cameron, D. (2015). PM Speech on Opportunity. London: HM Government
[3] Spielhofer, T., Corlyon, J., Durbin, B., Smith, M., Stock, L. and Gieve, M. (2014) Relationship Support Interventions Evaluation. Department for Education and Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/relationship-support-interventions-evaluation
[4] Field F (2010) The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults. The Report of the Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances.  Allen G (2011) Early Intervention: the Next Steps. An Independent Report to Her Majesty’s Government. London: HM Government.

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