• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 15th September, 2009

FACS facts dispel underclass myth

Much in politics is directed toward the most disadvantaged – the extent of their own suffering and of the damage they do to wider society. But there is a tendency to treat them as a homogeneous group – most dangerously as an underclass – when a more thorough understanding is needed if policy makers are to have a hope of dealing with complex problems. With this objective, the UK Social Exclusion Task Force has been mining 2006 data from the Families and Children Study (FACS), which since 1999 has been interviewing a representative sample of approximately 7,000 families with over 12,000 dependent children.The study mapped data from this survey on to the Bristol Social Exclusion Matrix (B-SEM), which sets out 18 risk “markers” of social exclusion across three domains: resources, participation and quality of life.The research shows that it is relatively easy to identify single risk markers of social exclusion, by establishing, for example, that in 2006 39% of families did not have savings of more than £100, 11% of mothers lacked contact with family or friends and 5% of mothers never spoke to neighbors face-to-face. Just under half (45%) of the families were exposed to multiple risk markers (two or more) but fewer than 2% experienced ten risks or more. However, more is not necessarily worse; insight into how risk markers interact and combine is more useful. To achieve this more nuanced understanding of disadvantage the statisticians applied cluster analysis to group families according to the combination of risk markers they experienced.This exercise produced nine distinct clusters of multiple risk families, including “severely excluded” (5%), “materially deprived families with no private transport” (8%) and “families living in poor housing with debts” (4%). The families most at risk were more likely to be headed by lone or younger parents, to have four or more children, and to live in rented accommodation in the most deprived areas.The parent survey was supplemented with a self-completion questionnaire for children between the ages of 11 and 15 covering a range of issues related to well-being. This allowed the research team to explore inter-generational links.The results support existing evidence that poor outcomes can be transmitted down the generations. Children from the most at risk families tended to experience low levels of well-being. For example, among families experiencing more than five parent-related risks, 27% of children had three risks or more; the equivalent figure for families for whom there was no parent-related risk marker was 4%.Further, children’s well-being was generally associated with the disadvantages experienced by their parents. For example, children in poor health from low income families were unlikely to be much involved in sport. Children whose parents were unwell experienced disproportionately high rates of illness or disability.The study also included a longitudinal element, drawing on the six waves of FACS data for 2001-2006. It emerged from that wider sweep that more families experienced singular and multiple forms of risk over a six-year period than the cross-sectional data indicated. About 19% families were income poor at any one time, but over a six-year period 41% families were affected.A small proportion of families (4-7%) experienced multiple risks persistently. These families were more likely to be lone parents, to have four or more children, to have young mothers or mothers from Black ethnic groups, to be social tenants and to live in urban areas.What propels people between different states of disadvantage? As one might expect, families who succeeded in moving away from multiple risk had the break of finding a new relationship or a job. Descent into multiple risk, or movement between risk clusters, was generally associated with factors such as becoming unemployed or experiencing family separation.Unsurprising as many of these findings may be, the authors argue that this more more detailed recognition of how risks cluster among vulnerable families, and the types of families they affect, assists public service providers to better match services to needs.The work highlights the need to provide tailored, whole family approaches and shows how families are likely to draw on services from a range of different “entry points”. It also attends to the plight of a small proportion of families who experience persistent multiple disadvantage and so require more intensive support to improve child outcomes.A weakness of the data is that they do not deal with civic and political participation or have much to say about crime, and they neglect people living in institutions and atypical accommodation. See: Oroyemi P, Damioli G, Barnes M and Crosier T (2009) Understanding the Risks of Social Exclusion across the Life Course: Families with children London, Social Exclusion Task Force, Cabinet Office.

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