Esther Dermott is Reader in Sociology at the University of Bristol, UK. Her research interests are focused on family and parenting, intimacy, work, gender and poverty. She is the author of Intimate Fatherhood (2008, Routledge) and co-editor of Displaying Families (2011, Palgrave). She is a co-investigator on the ESRC funded Poverty in the United Kingdom Survey, http://www.poverty.ac.uk (contributing analysis on gender and parenting) and principal investigator on Fragile Fathering: Negotiating Intimacy and Risk in Parenting Practice, funded by the British Academy.
Popular and political discussions in the UK about children’s future prospects are currently dominated by an emergent dichotomy in which either ‘poverty’ or ‘parenting’ is posited as the explanatory factor. In the current period of austerity this oppositional framing has become increasingly explicit: in response to the riots which took place across England in August 2011 one set of commentators focused on a lack of personal responsibility with its origins in the absences of appropriate parental role models, while others emphasised poverty and social disadvantage as causal mechanisms. The same pattern of highlighting either poverty or parenting is evident in major policy documents, including two significant government commissioned reports The Foundation Years (2010) and Early Intervention (2011).
This paper argues that the development of the poverty/parenting dichotomy should be resisted because it is both unconvincing and unhelpful. Notwithstanding its popular and political prevalence, this discourse is unconvincing because research evidence suggests the importance of both parental engagement and financial resources for outcomes for children. Further, it is unhelpful because the creation and maintenance of this dichotomy works against developing a nuanced understanding of how the practices and attitudes of parents interact with economic circumstances and access to resources. Therefore the paper argues that as social researchers we must actively challenge lazy misrepresentations of existing evidence and counter any simplistic discourse. This needs to be done in combination with conducting work which can develop better understandings of the relationships between material disadvantage and what parents do, as well as effectively communicating these findings.