“Childhood is not a waiting room for adulthood” – New research helps professionals address child poverty

A great deal of research has been conducted on the causes and consequences of child poverty. But we know little about the individuals working to implement the associated policies in practice. A new project aims to bridge this knowledge gap.

“We know very little about how the professionals carrying out practical measures such as helping, supporting and offering services or means-tested benefits take the perspective of poverty into account in their work.”

This is the view of Professor Helena Blomberg-Kroll. Under her leadership, Doctoral Researcher Christa Järvinen will now investigate how various social services professionals treat and interact with economically vulnerable families with children.

“How do professionals identify children at risk of poverty, how do they treat them and what can they do to help? What is difficult and what is going well? How can they avoid labelling and stigmatising? These are some of the questions we wish to answer,” explains Blomberg-Kroll.

In the project, Christa Järvinen will interview social services staff working in areas such as adult social work and child protection. She will also talk to professionals within pupil welfare services, including school social workers, psychologists and teachers.

“We wish to interview a variety of professionals who meet children from different backgrounds every day. This way we will obtain a broader perspective than if we were to interview only social workers, who are often considered the professionals whose work brings them most into contact with child poverty.” 

The project Barnfattigdom – En studie av professionellas synsätt och praktiker (‘Child poverty – A study on the views and practices of professionals’) is estimated to last two years, with financing from the foundation Brita Maria Renlunds minne.

Children cannot improve their economic circumstances themselves

A major challenge for professionals today is coming into contact with and identifying children who live below the poverty line.

Helena Blomberg-Kroll points out that you cannot always count on children or their families to contact authorities unprompted, as poverty is a taboo subject that often triggers strong feelings of shame. In addition, some may not know enough about navigating the social support system. They may distrust the authorities or feel that contacting them would be stigmatising, and worry about being judged as parents.

Consequently, one of the project goals is to develop advice and practices to help professionals better address and raise issues of child poverty.

“Although we won’t be writing a detailed manual, we’ll outline some important issues to consider when you notice a change in a child’s behaviour, so that everyone remembers to ask themselves whether the family in question might have economic problems,” says Järvinen.

The researchers also wish to use the project to strengthen the connection between research and practice, for example, by developing the way in which the topic is addressed in professional education.

Blomberg-Kroll notes that the assumption in the Nordic welfare states has been that prospective social workers are trained to handle poverty-related issues and structures. However, signs now indicate that these issues are not necessarily taken into account as extensively as before, at least not at the societal level.

“It is possible that we are heading towards what has been called a therapeutic welfare state, where the aim is not to tackle structural problems. Instead, vulnerable people are offered types of support based on the idea that they should solve their own problems, a type of ‘DYI social policy’.”

But this doesn’t work, at least not when it comes to children, says Blomberg-Kroll.

“Children’s opportunities to improve their economic circumstances are much more limited, as they can’t start working, for instance. This means they depend on their parents and society, which is important to keep in mind.”

Risk of child poverty further worsening

Both researchers describe child poverty as a problem that has long been fundamental in Finland. This was one of the reasons they wished to investigate it.

In Finland, the rate of child poverty, once the lowest in the world, has over the past two decades increased significantly. Today, one in ten children in Finland live under the poverty line. As a result of the covid crisis and economic deterioration, many families with children may face further financial difficulties, and an increasing number may fall below the poverty line. In Finland, a household is considered to live in relative poverty if its income totals under 60% of the median national income.

The new government programme and its cuts to social security mean that the situation may worsen even more, says Blomberg-Kroll, who is concerned about the trend.

“Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children are of equal value and must have the same development opportunities. If we take the convention seriously, child poverty can be described, regardless of variation in social policy, as a truly significant problem in Finland.”

Research shows that poverty leads to children feeling less included among their peers and in society at large. In addition, child poverty may have tremendous consequences in adulthood, including mental health issues and lower education levels. 

 Blomberg-Kroll stresses the inherent value of childhood.

“Childhood is not a waiting room for adulthood and life in general. Childhood is an incredibly important and, ideally, a fantastic stage of life. This underlines the importance of tackling poverty so that children can live well in the present, not just with a view to their future wellbeing.” 

Child poverty affects society as a whole

Christa Järvinen hopes that the project results will reach all professionals working with children.

“In the short term, our research aims to increase knowledge that will help children here and now.”

But she also sees child poverty and its prevention as issues that affect our society as a whole and would thus like to see them discussed more, particularly by politicians. 

“In the long term, politicians have the power to influence the social policy goals that are then realised by professionals at the grassroots level.” 

Helena Blomberg-Kroll agrees. She also mentions the discussion on young people’s mental health issues and notes that many of those affected are economically vulnerable.

“We should identify and support economically vulnerable children much earlier, not when their situation has already escalated into a crisis. All those working with children on a daily basis should keep this in mind and strive to see the connection between economic circumstances and children’s wellbeing.”