9 Apr 2012

Britain’s working families at ‘tipping point’


Home-Start UK’s volunteers were meant to be a helping hand for families – now they feel more like firefighters. Channel 4 News meets some of the families struggling to cope in jobless Britain.

Politicians often talk about the financial pressure on Britain’s families – they use phrases like the “squeezed middle” and the “working poor” to describe parents who hold down jobs but have been hit by economic uncertainty and rising prices, writes Victoria James.

But we have been told by charities working across Britain that money worries are just the start of people’s problems. Until recently, national family support charity Home-Start UK told us, a family might be able to weather a shock like unemployment. But with incomes stretched, people are now a lot less resilient. And when the financial problems can’t be fixed, other ones pile up on top – depression, housing problems and ill-health. Families approach a “tipping point”, barely able to keep things together, and on the brink of tumbling into crisis.

Home-Start UK allowed us access to their work in two areas that have seen a real rise in families at this tipping point, Birmingham and Bedford. As their family services specialist Julie Garbett told us, across the country they are seeing “more families, with many more needs”. Once, Home-Start’s volunteers were a helping hand for families – now, we heard, they feel more like firefighters.

• Home Start UK surveyed its more than 300 centres nationwide for Channel 4 News - of those responding, every one reported a significant increase in the number of families presenting for support; 
• Birmingham has seen a 70 per cent rise in the number of families coming to Home-Start for help. Other parts of the country also saw a big rise in cases. In Newport in Wales there was a 30 per cent increase. And the figure is around 25 per cent in Doncaster and East Lindsay, in Lincolnshire.

Surge in referrals

We spent time with Anna, Russ and their twin boys, and heard how this once comfortably-off family was left struggling after health issues for the twins, tight finances and depression hit them in quick succession. In an already difficult situation, ongoing struggles for Russ to find and maintain work puts them under more pressure and ill-health means Anna’s job at a local primary school is under threat.The couple have begun selling off some of their possessions to keep afloat.

And we met Rebecca, raising her two-year-old son Kieran and running a home on her partner’s minimum-wage pay-packet. Her house has very little furniture – almost all of it is donated. Rebecca constantly juggles their budget – making a little go a long way – but when it comes to Kieran’s birthday this year, finding the money for a trip to a local play center is beyond what they have in the bank.

As both families told us what life was like, they described a moment when they had gone from being able to juggle their daily demands, to that “tipping point” when they needed help to carry on. As the big problems overwhelm parents, simple daily tasks like getting the weekly shopping becomes too difficult. Once isolated parents don’t know where to find the help the need to stop problems escalating. Its is at this point that charities like HomeStart have become a real lifeline, often the only support the family is receiving.

It was clear that concern to give their children the best future possible was a powerful motivator. And the latest research to emerge from the Millennium Cohort Study – a longitudinal research project tracking the lives of around 19,000 British children born in 2000-01 – offers some powerful insights into why these anxious parents are right.

The study looked at families struggling with multiple risk factors – things like worklessness, young parenthood, overcrowded housing and financial stress. Where two or more of those factors are present in a family, there are measurable threats to children’s development. The researchers were surprised that the threshold for risk was so low. By their calculations, some 28 per cent of families in Britain are already over that threshold.

“These aren’t extreme examples,” said Dr Kirstine Hansen, Research Director of the Millennium Cohort Study at the Institute of Education. “These are just very normal families. It’s a very easy progression from zero risk factors to one, two or more.”

Home-Start UK is bracing itself for a further surge in referrals. Already some of its centres are having to close their books or recruit more volunteers. It seems clear that for many more families, that tipping point is a lot closer than they think.