The lives of families in their own words

Family futures coverFamily futures is about family life in areas of concentrated poverty and social problems, areas where it is difficult to bring up children and where surrounding conditions make family life more fraught and more limited. Families are at the forefront of change and progress as children are our common future, and what we do to them today will shape all our tomorrows. In poorer communities many strands of disadvantage combine because one problem compounds another, making these areas unpopular with families with choice. Yet low-income families need affordable housing above all, so they cluster in estates of social housing in the most problematic areas. A sense of belonging or community becomes vital because most low income families do not have cars, so they are dependent on local services and connections for most of their family needs and activities.

These neighbourhoods have long been poor, working class areas; their large estates were a product of earlier slum clearance and rebuilding before and after the Second World War. The proportion of newcomers, usually migrants from abroad, in all the areas has grown rapidly since the 1980s, following the loss of traditional local jobs and better housing options elsewhere for local families with more choice. This has compounded the pressures on already disadvantaged areas.

Parents with little choice about where they live have a stronger than average concern about their neighbourhoods. They try to control and shape their immediate surroundings but they rely not just on who their neighbours are and what family members they live near, but on wider structures and services that they cannot shape on their own. All the areas have many local facilities and services, added incrementally over years of effort to improve social conditions and reduce neighbourhood problems, but the overall condition of all the areas is poor. We talked to 200 families over ten years from 1998 to 2008, collecting their views on community problems and on how the areas changed during that time.

This book relies on the words of families themselves to answer three important questions:

What are the main challenges facing families in poor areas?

How are the areas changing and the challenges being met?

Have government efforts helped or hindered progress over the past decade?

Since 1998, many public and private initiatives have targeted area conditions and low income families, but it is rare to hear what families give their views on what works and doesn’t work, explain what helps and what hinders their children’s progress, what gaps there are and what new approaches may help. Parents have both positive and negative experiences of neighbourhood services and programmes in the most difficult areas; we point to the conspicuous gaps still waiting to be closed. Therefore, behind our questions about bringing up children in low income areas lie much bigger worries:

What future do families face in disadvantaged areas?

How far is the wider society responsible for that future?

Family futures by Anne Power, Helen Willmot and Rosemary Davidson, publishing this month, shows how responsibility can be shared.

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