New working paper suggests the need to rethink what European countries offer to families, especially those with low resources


Mary Daly, University of Oxford, February 2024

In this next addition to the rEUsilience working paper series, we bring our research on family life for those with low resources together in one cross-country overview report. Based on 41 focus groups with over 300 people from different types of families in Belgium, Croatia, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the UK, the findings reveal strikingly similar living patterns and concerns in the different counties. While the dataset is too small to make generalisations about national systems, the rich evidence shared by the participants provides insight into how people lacking in income and other resources manage their lives and engage with their environment. It both confirms some existing knowledge and highlights aspects of people’s situation that are relatively new. The evidence prompts questions about whether we fully understand the situation of low-resource families and the challenges for policy in addressing their situation.

The full paper is linked below. Here I want to home in on some challenges for research and policy.

Cumulation of risks and disadvantages across employment, health, housing and social isolation

As a first step, we should note that the worst-off people are not just low in income but are lacking in a whole set of resources. There is a cumulative intertwining of a range of risks and disadvantages. This calls for a way of thinking that connects different types of resources. People’s problems stem not just from, say, unemployment or low wages but because many are in situations where inadequate paid work and income are layered upon health-related difficulties, inadequate housing and/or relative social isolation. The cumulation aspect becomes especially visible when we zoom out from the individual to a family level. Then we see a patterning that frequently links ill-health, gender, family structure and caring responsibilities with low material resources, time and paid work. The close relationship between people’s employment habits and capacities and their family’s needs is also revealed. To better understand these intersections, we need to have concepts that can countenance co-occurrence and layering of disadvantages. Some concepts that are sensitive to cumulation already exist. For example, the EU’s at risk of poverty and social exclusion (AROPE) concept is one attempt to link income to aspects of people’s wider situation like housing, standard of living and social connectedness. There are other concepts also, such as multiple deprivation, vulnerability and social exclusion, that see a multiplicity of factors in play. Whether these are sufficient to capture the intersection of structural conditions and vulnerabilities is open to question though. There is more conceptual work to do on this in my view.  

Huge time and energy required to manage low resources in families

The research was carried out in the first six months of 2023, a period which saw rising costs of living in all the countries. Against a popular depiction of low-income populations as passive, people’s behaviours were dynamic and agentic. It can take a great amount of energy, resources and responsiveness to deal with a weak or poor family economy. As well as the ‘stretching’ of money and controlling of consumption, relationships have to be managed and people have to try and ensure that they get access to what they are entitled to from public services and benefits. The latter is not easy as the welfare systems in some countries – for example the UK – are hugely complicated. Navigating them requires not just time and knowledge but also qualities like persistence and self-belief. It is only a short step from this to recognise that a broad repertoire of skills is required to cope in situations where resources are low. The research suggests that such skills and practices are of two core types: cognitive and behavioural. Cognitive-type skills are the less recognised and explored of the two. Mental skills and labour were visible in people’s accounts of the complex decision making that they engaged in through continuous rounds of review of income and spending. Decisions that are straightforward and relatively routine for people with sufficient resources call for pause, careful assessment and even postponement in low-resource situations. Some participants even spoke of needing to change their mindset to be able to cope with their situation. Classic examples here are where people had to will themselves to be stoical and more optimistic and to consciously reject feelings of shame and embarrassment. There are real challenges here for conceptualising the complex mental and other forms of agency involved and for thinking about how people can be helped.

Structural factors underpin low-resource families’ exposure to risks and disadvantages

Exactly what people should be helped with needs most careful thought. People in low-resource circumstances are regularly faced with situations that call for adjustment – changing consumption behaviour or altering expectations are just two types of necessary adaptation. One might, then, conclude that people need to be helped to adjust and, in this context, one could imagine skills training in money management for example or instruction in broader coping skills as possible interventions. Ultimately though, the desired outcome is for people not to be in a situation of low resources at all or for this to be short-term. To view the desired help in terms of training for adjustment and adaptation is to argue that, if people had the right skills or made the right decisions, they would not be in the situation they are in. We might allow this for some people but it does not hold when significant sub-sections of the population are in such a situation. The spotlight must, then, be turned on the factors that are propelling people into a disadvantaged situation and those that are keeping them there. Many of the families in this study were not moving forward in the sense of changing their situation for the better. Instead, they were using up their resources so that their situation did not worsen. This is unsustainable. The real challenge is to prevent situations of cumulative low resources from happening and, when they do, resourcing people sufficiently so that they can move beyond them. These are structural issues that call for structural measures to reduce people’s exposure to risks, redress their disadvantaged position and increase their resources.   

Responding to family realities regarding work and care

Aspects of family life are endangered in situations where resources are low. ‘More understanding from government of my family’s situation’ and ‘too many demands on parents’ were scored at the top of families’ concerns. This finding indicates the belief that parenting today is high stakes and that decision-makers do not sufficiently appreciate what it is like to rear children and maintain family life in circumstances of low resources. A root issue is about the extent to which people can realise their hopes and visions for their children and family life. On the basis of the report’s evidence, it is hard to underestimate the centrality of care. People’s day-to-day lives were centred around caring for children and/or adults and doing this well was core to their values and self-identity. But sufficient time and income are essential resources for care; when these resources are scarce people’s options become very constrained. In effect, one needs money and security to have a real choice in managing both paid work and care. It was clear from the research that care-giving was frequently compromised with many people forced to make trade-offs between providing what they considered as adequate care for their families and undertaking paid work. No country of the six has adequately managed that trade-off for low-resource families.  The reality, then, is that ‘work-life balance’ and the choices implied by the concept do not have great meaning when one is living with low resources.

Again, the question comes up here of what would help people to realise their expectations around family life. Listening to the people involved helps. The research offers clear answers to this in suggesting a major role for supportive services. Childcare services were very prominent in people’s minds in all the countries, as well as being the subject of considerable criticism by Belgian, British and Spanish participants. The research conveys a clear message of ‘wrap around care services’ being needed – these are services that would be available during ‘normal’ working hours but also in unusual work schedules. In this context, it is important to bear in mind that many low-income people work in the informal economy and in jobs where the working hours are neither stable nor regular. In addition to childcare or other care-related services, low-resource families require services that are oriented to support. Such services have suffered in the last decade or so as ‘activation’ or ‘market readiness’ (as in preparation for work or school) services have dominated the service landscape of European welfare states. In contrast to these, family support services recognise and seek to address the capacity to create and maintain a decent family life. They place the emphasis on ‘capacity to care well’, seeing this as important in its own right rather than because it helps family members into the labour market. Family support services also focus on the collective unit which is a contrast to the strongly individualised nature of social investment-oriented services.

Recognising family diversity

But, of course, not all families are the same. Two types of families emerged as having particular needs in all the countries: lone-parent families and families with a migrant background. Lone parents in all the countries felt that the specific difficulties of raising children alone were not sufficiently recognised by policy. Their experience was that they had to fit in with policy systems that were designed around two-parent families. The development of parental leaves is a good example. These have been at the centre of policy making in recent years but the thrust of reform has been around calibrating or seeking to match leave entitlements between mothers and fathers. Think of how exclusionary this is for solo parents and especially for lone mothers who may not even qualify for parental leave because they do not have the necessary employment history or credits. Surely then, we must ask whether all countries should have a specific social policy set for lone parents.

One might pose the same question in regard to migrant families (which are often lone-parent families too). The cumulation of challenges is sometimes at its most extreme for families of migrant background. They may have to function within a very different system and culture and they are frequently located at the margins of the labour market, the welfare state and social support. Migrant families’ reliance on helpful non-governmental organisations (where they exist) was a notable research finding. Of course, these six and other countries vary greatly in terms of the volume of migration. But migrant families exist in all countries and they emerged from this research as everywhere subject to additional challenges and risks in comparison to the population as a whole and generally as having fewer sources of help.     

Insecurity of welfare state provision  

Another notable finding was of how many of the participants were in an insecure relationship with the welfare state. Benefit levels were generally considered too low, with insecurity intensified by the fact that the only benefits that many low-resource families can access may be social assistance in nature. Such benefits tend to be given only on a test of people’s means and/or their behaviour and therefore offer little security. Participants sometimes struggled to qualify for public services as well, with greater difficulty in accessing health services in recent years widely reported. Taken as a whole, it is not far-fetched to say that a significant sub-section of participants in all countries found it difficult to navigate and meet the demands of ‘the system’. This came out most strongly in the UK but across countries some participants struggled with knowing what they had to do to qualify for particular benefits or services. Should it be like this? Furthermore, there was evidence in all countries of participants experiencing what they saw as dismissive or disrespectful attitudes on the part of officials. The type of experience involved ranged from not being ‘listened to’ to behaviours that were seen as discriminatory. It may well be that austerity measures in different countries have increased pressures on staffing, making poor treatment of applicants more likely. The widespread movement to digitalise welfare application procedures can also be daunting, if not exclusionary, for people with low resources. The concept of recognition – with its implicit reference to acceptance, recognising the positionality of the other person and showing respect – is a fundamental principle of well-functioning systems and should be to the fore when interrogating why the existing systems do not function as they should. 

Support beyond the welfare state

Some participants were also insecure in social support. For example, only a minority of people could call on their wider family (such as parents or siblings) for help. Why not? Family relationships and inter-dependencies are complex and several factors come into play in regard to seeking or receiving help when one has low resources. Think of how family norms vary and how asking for help might contravene family values around relative independence for example. Think of how being able even ask is itself dependent on the quality of one’s family relationships and how common it is for low resources to be associated with poor family relationships and a history of violence. Another reason why family support may not be possible is because relatives are themselves not in a position to help given their own scarce resources. In general, the people in this study did not have well-off relatives who could help. Friendship networks did not emerge prominently as support systems either. Overall, the focus group discussions in all the countries conveyed a strong sense of people trying to manage in a situation where help and support from others could not be counted on. And yet all welfare states take informal support for granted, especially in regard to care-giving and meeting care needs for example.

What does all of this mean for family resilience?

Taken together, the results underline the complexity and variety of responses needed by people to cope in low-resource situations and indicate that many families were using (up) existing resources rather than increasing their pool of resources. Coping by absorbing loss is a short-term strategy that may well decrease the capacity to be resilient in the long term. There were many families that had no access to levers of change, another inhering notion in the resilience concept. In addition, the findings suggest the need to recognise how the uneven distribution of material and other resources is itself associated with the capacity to be resilient. So too does it depend on family structure and family-related exigencies. The concept of resilience, then, needs to problematise the capacity to act in a situation as shaped by both one’s familial situation and broader patterns of inequality in society.

Thinking about overall reform, what people wanted to see changed depended on the particular system prevailing in their own country. Comparing requests in Croatia and Sweden, for example, is to compare different welfare universes. This showed in the results in that what Swedish people wanted was better support for additional family constraints like a family member with a long-term health condition or service support during non-regular employment hours whereas in Croatia (and Poland) the lack of basic supports was most problematised. The starting point, then, is not with how Croatia should be like Sweden or the UK like Belgium but of what an adequate system of support for low-resource families would look like in each country.

The full overview report can be read here.

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