I read in the Guardian today that Downing Street have announced Iain Duncan Smith will remain Work and Pensions Minister following the Conservatives electoral win last week. They reported that he will “continue with his task of “making work pay and reforming welfare” as the government implements the universal credit reforms and imposes £12bn in cuts on the welfare budget”. This will be in addition to the £30bn that the Institute of Fiscal Studies say the Tories will also need to find in real-terms cuts from ‘unprotected’ departments, including social care and defence. The news of a Tory win last Thursday didn’t go down well with some. There were large demonstrations in London over the weekend; although it was only the violent clashes with riot police outside Downing Street that seem to have made the headlines. However, the arrests don’t seem to have deterred them; and the anti-austerity group behind the protest are planning another demonstration outside the Bank of England next month.
Like many, I am genuinely worried about the proposed cuts and what that means for social work. I posted last week that Peter Kinderman, Professor of Clinical Psychology & Head of the Institute of Psychology, Health & Society at the University of Liverpool, has said that one of the best predictors of mental health disorders by far, whether it’s depression, suicidality, psychosis, are all life events. The strongest predictor all by itself is poverty. Not because poverty by itself causes depression, but because it is a predictor of all the other things that are causal. So poverty has been described as the causes of the causes. And those other causes are a whole raft of things – childhood neglect, childhood abuse, loneliness, and problematic parenting, which is usually inter-generational. It’s not about bad parents, it’s about who themselves haven’t perhaps had the sort of childhood that predisposed them to good enough parenting. And so the cycle continues…
There are currently 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK. That’s almost a third of all children. 1.6 million of these children live in severe poverty. But what the Conservatives don’t want you to know is that 63% of children living in poverty are in a family where someone works. This is why welfare, preventative services, family support and intervention are so vital. We need to break the cycle by providing welfare that brings children out of poverty. Services need to be funded and available to support the most vulnerable and improve parenting so that children can be safeguarded in the care of their family. However, services that were once available have been decimated through cuts over the course of the last parliament and they look set to get worse by 2020.
But welfare isn’t just about being a decent human being; it also makes economic sense.
In the mid-'90s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered an exposure that dramatically increased the risk for seven out of ten of the leading causes of death in the United States. In high doses, it affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, and even our DNA. People that are exposed in very high doses have triple the lifetime risk of heart disease and lung cancer and a 20-year difference in life expectancy. It’s not about eating GM foods. It's childhood trauma: things like abuse or neglect, or growing up with a parent who struggles with mental illness or substance dependence; things that we know, according to Peter Kinderman, are strongly linked to poverty. Take a look at this 2014 TED talk by Nadine Burke Harris.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences study found that there was a dose-response relationship between ACEs and health outcomes: the higher your ACE score, the worse your health outcomes. For a person with an ACE score of four or more, their relative risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was two and a half times that of someone with an ACE score of zero. For hepatitis, it was also two and a half times. For depression, it was four and a half times. For suicidality, it was 12 times. A person with an ACE score of seven or more had triple the lifetime risk of lung cancer and three and a half times the risk of ischemic heart disease, the number one killer in the United States of America.
Now, you might be thinking – this is interesting but it’s about a study conducted in the United States. Can we rely on the findings to support welfare as a public health initiative in the UK? Well…. In 2014 Mark Bellis and colleagues published a retrospective study to determine the impact of adverse childhood experiences on adult health behaviours and health outcomes in a UK population. They also found that increasing ACEs were strongly related to adverse behavioural, health and social outcomes. Compared to those with 0 ACEs those with 4+ ACEs had a greater risk of poor educational and employment outcomes; low mental wellbeing and life satisfaction; recent violence involvement; incarceration; recent inpatient hospital care and chronic health conditions; and early unplanned pregnancy. All of this suggests a cyclic effect where those with higher ACE counts have higher risks of exposing their own children to ACEs.
There are more studies here, here, and here.
It’s clear that these childhood experiences place a burden on a UK population’s health, NHS and judicial system; and there is a strong case for the government to invest in effective interventions to prevent them. That’s why the World Health Organization and global health partners are promoting research into the extent and impact of them around the world. So, why is it that during this time of growing evidential support for preventative work, is the government promoting a false economy through welfare cuts and dismantling the welfare system???
In 2007 Lynne Wrennall identified failures in the UK’s work with vulnerable children. She believes that the morale of a “great many caring, compassionate, highly competent, and creative social workers” would be “vastly improved if their primary function was again focused on assisting, rather than dismantling, families, upon working creatively toward this end with the resources and the legislative and managerial support to do so”. However, she also acknowledges that sometimes “an out-of-home placement is unavoidable”, and that in those instances “a programme leading towards re-unification and rehabilitation must be implemented”. She advocates for a “European model” that “strongly favours an educative role for social workers and a primary task of maintaining family unity, utilising and coordinating services toward this end and focusing on `educating’ the parents and family in social norms and values”.
But for this to happen the conservative government would first need to reframe the way it thinks about the most vulnerable people in our society and invest in their future wellbeing and health. Local Authorities would need greater funding to hire more social workers so that caseloads are at a manageable level where they have the time to undertake intensive direct work with families again. They would need to fund preventative and outreach services that can directly tackle problems before children become at risk of significant harm. Instead, proposals have been tabled to jail social workers who fail to prevent neglect, despite the necessary infrastructure to properly address it; and the shock result of a Conservative majority victory signals deeper, faster cuts than ever before. Communitycare has urged Social Workers to channel whatever they are feeling about the election result into something that isn’t apathy, because the profession looks set to be needed like never before and I have to agree.
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I'm a Qualified Children's Social Worker with a passion for safeguarding and family support in the UK.