Through many decades of social policy, sociology and social work writing on the relationship between the state, the family and the child, it is possible to trace an enduring theme around the interaction between poverty and parenting. Occasionally, an analysis appears that draws on all those approaches, and whose findings will have long-lasting and major implications for policy makers and practitioners from all the disciplines whose activity impacts on the lives of children in and out of their families. One such work is the study, published in 1978, by Harriett Wilson and George Herbert, of parenting in the inner city.
This is a book that stands proudly in a long line of inspirational, informed and insightful writers on the topic, such as Maud Pember Reeve (Round About a Pound a Week, 1913), Alvin Schorr (Children and Decent People, 1975) and Bob Holman (Inequality in Child Care, 1976). All these writers were—and are—determined that the process by which professionals assess the circumstances of children must, as a fundamental requirement, take account of the structural inequalities in society and, crucially, poverty. They believe that inequalities contribute both to the circumstances of children and families in the first place and, as a double jeopardy, to the often all too insensitive, and sometimes punitive, response of the state.
Wilson and Herbert adopt an empirically rigorous approach to their study of parental child-rearing methods, on the basis of which they identify and describe an alternative model of child-centred-ness, which is applicable to the milieu of poverty. Their work (reported in British Journal of Social Work, 4(3), pp. 241–54) could not be more timely to current debates around social exclusion in general and youth crime in particular. Not only do they show clearly how the practice of parenting is vulnerable to the stress of poverty, but also highlight how parents grappling with poverty seek to protect their children from the worst effects of such adversity and undertake a role of ‘chaperonage in the slum’. In this approach, strict methods of supervision may reduce accidents and association with undesirable neighbours and strangers, and could reduce crime. They argue, however, that parents and children in the slums (sic.) need vast fiscal resources to improve their conditions before an attempt is made to change their attitudes.
The book has had an acknowledged and considerable impact on many current and subsequent writers. Frank Field—MP and previously Director of Child Poverty Action Group, Wilson, was Vice Chair until 1981—concludes in his obituary of her (The Guardian, 26 July 2002) that ‘no subsequent study has equalled the importance of this book’.
It has also been a great source of inspiration to me, as a social worker, social work teacher and social work researcher, including in studies undertaken (with Jane Aldgate) of the impact of section 17 of the 1989 Children Act; my role in the National Evaluation of Sure Start; and current work for SCIE to develop, in partnership with the service user-led group ATD Fourth World, an e:learning module on parenting, poverty and social exclusion.
It seems very unjust that Harriet Wilson, who died in 2002 and suffered with Alzheimer's Disease, did not live to see the long-lasting evidence of the impact of her work in many current policy arenas. Its enduring influence can arguably be seen in the design both of the Sure Start Initiative and of the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need. The latter includes a requirement for practitioners to take account of the three dimensions of the child's developmental needs: parenting capacity and family and environmental factors, such as income, housing and employment. This book establishes a benchmark for research rigour and shows how researchers can contribute to our understanding of what it means to bring up one's children against a backdrop of poverty and social exclusion. Wilson and Herbert show us how a truly knowledge-based approach to service design must start with a real understanding of the complex way in which poverty impacts on the day-to-day experience of the many parents who grapple with it.