Family Matters

Poor perceptions

The links between poverty and addiction are complex and should not be over-simplified, says Joss Smith

The public’s perception of child poverty has been thrust into the spotlight over the last few weeks with a recent government survey suggesting that the public see strong causal links between drug and alcohol use and poverty. Ian Duncan Smith further discussed this point on in a speech at the end of January stating:

‘For a poor family where the parents are suffering from addiction, giving them an extra pound in benefits might officially move them over the poverty line. But increased income from welfare transfers will not address the reason they find themselves in difficulty in the first place.’ 

He goes on to argue that: 

‘Worse still, if it does little more than feed the parents’ addiction, it may leave the family more dependent not less, resulting in poor social outcomes and still deeper entrenchment. What such a family needs is that we treat the cause of their hardship –  the drug addiction itself.’

Although it may be quite likely that an individual child with parents addicted to drugs or alcohol will grow up in poverty, this does not mean that drug or alcohol addiction is a cause of child poverty in the majority of cases. We note in our response to the government’s child poverty consultation that only a fraction of the 2,300,000 children currently living in poverty will be living with a parent with a drug or alcohol problem.

Unfortunately this kind of public statement may lead to confusion and a conflation of addiction and poverty in the minds of many readers and risks further stigmatising some of our families most on the margins.

We welcome the government’s efforts to further understand the wider determinants of child poverty and the impact that parental health (including drug and alcohol use) has on that child. However the links between poverty and addiction are complex and the extent to which it should be included in any multidimensional definition is unclear. 

It is important that any measure seeks to review not only public opinion but also the vast body of available research and evaluations into child poverty, while maintaining the central measure of household income as the biggest determinate of poverty.

Joss Smith is director of policy and regional development at Adfam,