Poor Housing Can Ruin Children’s Lives – What Will You Do About It?

The Impact of Poor Housing on Child Development Outcomes
Reflections and Notes from Dr Kaz Stuart

On the 27th October 2018 I delivered a keynote to the West Cumbria Child Poverty forum on the national and international research on the link between poor housing and child development outcomes. This was delivered as part of my role at the University of Cumbria as Associate Professor of Child, Adolescent and Family Studies and was time donated to the forum.

I outlined that child development outcomes comprise:

Physical development (growth and motor control)
Emotional development (primary and secondary, attachment, self-identity, moral development
Social development (non-verbal and verbal)
Communication and speech development
Cognitive development (representation, logic and abstraction).
Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological system model helps illustrate two useful points – firstly that housing is an important central influence on child development, and that it is not the only influence on child development.

Poor housing is strongly associated with poverty as it is people who cannot afford alternatives that end up living in the poorest housing stock available. There are two measures of poverty.
Relative low income refers to households with income below 60% of the median in that year.

Absolute low income refers to households with income below 60% of an (inflation-adjusted) median income set in a base year in order to understand change over time.

Despite a government commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020, the levels of relative and absolute child poverty are higher than 2010 and set to continue to rise towards 2020 . This means that we can expect more children to experience poor housing in the future.

Poverty affects the standard of housing a family may afford and the amount of living expenses available for other necessities. The Department of Communities and Local Government calculated that home owners pay an average of 19% of their income on mortgage repayments whilst people renting social housing paid an average of 31% of their income and private renters paid an average of 43%.

This means that the people in society who have the least in effect pay the most for their housing leaving even less for essentials . Maslow’s child development model, the hierarchy of needs (shown below) , suggests that this could prevent a family living in poverty from meeting a child’s basic needs and psychological needs, preventing further development.

I turned to some statistics on the number of children who may be affected by developmental delays attributable to poor housing.

The 2004 Housing Bill defined unfit houses as: in need of substantial repairs, are structurally unsafe, are damp, cold, or infested, or lacking in modern facilities. There were 750,000 children in the UK living in unfit houses in 2006 .

Overcrowding is defined as children of different sexes over 10 years of age sharing with one another or with a parent, or where other rooms are used are bedrooms e.g. a kitchen or lounge . There were 90,000 children evidenced to be experiencing overcrowding in England in 2003 .

Calculating homelessness is more complex. There are official statistics for numbers of homeless households, some of whom will have families. In addition to this there are young people who either live on the streets, in shelters, or ‘sofa surf’ who are not captured in official statistics. Clearly living on the streets and in the hands of potential exploitative ‘sofa’ owners poses high risks for young people. The charity Centre Point commissioned Cambridge University’s Centre for Housing and Planning Research to investigate levels of youth homelessness and they estimated it affected 83,000 young people in the UK in 2017. This stands in contrast to official figures of 26,862 homeless young people released by the Department of Communities and Local Government illustrating how undocumented the issue is.

In addition to people entirely without a home, there are those who do not have a stable place to live but instead reside in and move around temporary accommodation. Government statistics show that this affected 79,880 households in the UK in 2017 .

In 2006 the National Centre for Social Research investigated the prevalence of poor housing. They found that nationally:

15% of children were living in overcrowded conditions (persistent for 13% of children)
11% of children were living in housing with poor repair (persistent for 6% of children)
5% of children were living in housing with inadequate heating (persistent for 4% of children)
25% of all children experienced one of these issues
5% of children experienced multiple forms of bad housing.
These statistics indicate the scale of children who are potentially affected by poor housing. I now turned to the literature to investigate what the impact of such poor housing is. Seven key pieces of literature were drawn on to confirm the impact on child development outcomes.

The National Centre for Social Research study showed the impact of both poor housing and overcrowding.
• 25% of children living in poor housing had long standing illness
• 29% of children living in poor housing were bullied
• 5% of children living in poor housing aged 8-18 had been in trouble with the police compared to 3% of children with short term exposure to poor housing.
• 12% of children who lived in overcrowded conditions could not do homework
• Children in overcrowded houses also reported feeling unhappy about their health.

Their summary of the impact of poor housing on child outcomes was structured around the five every child matters outcomes established in 2005 . Impact was found in all five outcome areas. Most significant were the impacts on long-standing illness, being bullied, sense of personal safety, enjoying and achieving at school, being punished at school, and all aspects of making a positive contribution.

In 2006 the charity Shelter undertook a massive literature review and collated evidence of the impact of poor housing on child outcomes.

The results of this review showed evidence of children living in poor housing:
• Have a 25% increase in the risk of severe ill-health or disability
• Are 10 times more likely to contract meningitis
• Have an increased prevalence of asthma
• Are 3 to 4 times greater chance of suffering mental health problems and behaviour problems
• Are 2 to 3 times more likely to miss school
• Longer term have an increased likelihood of unemployment of not engaging in leisure and of criminal behaviour.

In addition the research showed clear links between overcrowding and slower growth, which is linked in later life to a prevalence of coronary heart disease; and to a lower level of cognitive development.

The research evidenced a link between homelessness and lower communication skills, lower levels of attainment when other variables were controlled for, and an increase in behavioural issues and lower levels of attainment when ability was controlled for. Alarmingly half of all young offenders have experienced homelessness suggesting that living on the streets necessitates crime for survival.

A decade later, the National Children’s Bureau conducted a similar literature review drawing together more recent research . This showed compelling evidence that:
• Children in rented, older and overcrowded accommodation are known to have increased incidence of accidents at home
• Children in cold homes twice as likely to suffer respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis
• Fuel poverty is associated with low weight gain in infants, slower developmental progress and a higher level of hospital admissions in the first three years of life
• Overcrowding can lead to tuberculosis and meningitis
• Frequent changes in housing are associated with emotional and behavioural problems and poor academic attainment
• Overcrowding affects mental health and household relationships and poor psychological health in young children.

More recently a study in Ireland surveyed and interviewed 20 families and 45 sets of school staff . This in depth but small-scale study showed the impact of poor housing on each layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs over time.

Poor housing impacts most greatly on basic needs in early childhood and primary school, although impact on security and friendships grows at this point. In secondary school basic needs are still impacted the most, but closely followed by self-esteem issues. The diagram extract below demonstrates therefore illustrates the impact of poor housing at all stages of child development.

One piece of evidence exists that contradicts the four sets of evidence reviewed to date. This is a study conducted by the University of Bristol in 2010 using data from the Millennium Cohort Study of 19,000 children born in 2000/1 and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children which surveyed 14,000 children in Avon born in 1991/2. Housing was one of seven variables tested for their impact on child outcomes using a statistical regression analysis. The study found that housing conditions (people per room, central heating, damp and access to garden) had only a ‘marginal’ impact on child outcomes. There are, however, critiques of this study. A narrow set of statistical measures were used to compare causes and outcomes that were drawn from surveys not designed for that purpose, and using one regional data set. The weight of the previous four studies also perhaps put these findings under question.

Turning further afield, I drew on two international studies, one from the USA and one from Australia to understand if this phenomenon was solely UK related or a more global issue.

The ‘What Works Collaborative’ undertook extensive research in the USA and proposed a staged impact model. The state of the housing market, housing model in operation and housing services available had an impact on housing outcomes such as the quality of the home, affordability of the home and location of the home. These in turn affected a second set of housing outcomes including levels of health and safety, stability of housing and the quality of local schooling and social norms. These in a final turn impacted on school outcomes such as absenteeism, behavioural issues, test scores, school drop out and final qualifications.

In similarly comprehensive research, the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute analysed national data and concluded that different housing experiences could act on physical, social emotional and learning outcomes positively or negatively. This again highlighted the deleterious impact of poor housing across a range of child development outcomes.

In summary, three key points need to be made.

Firstly, there are unacceptably high numbers of children living in poor housing comprised of living in houses in a poor condition, overcrowded condition, temporary accommodation and homelessness. The current forecasts for levels of poverty indicate that this number is on the rise.

Secondly, the evidence strongly indicates that poor housing experiences all have a negative impact on:
• Physical development (growth and motor control)
• Emotional development (primary and secondary, attachment, self-identity, moral development)
• Social development (non-verbal and verbal)
• Communication and speech development
• Cognitive development (representation, logic and abstraction).

Further, the impact in early childhood is most likely to be at the level of basic needs which can itself become a barrier to development in further areas. Many areas of developmental delay compound one another, for example, poor communication skills may impair intellectual development as language is not available for concept formation. Initial developmental issues also have a longitudinal impact for example, poor health in early life is connected to later chronic health issues and early experiences of school failure can impact on long-term earnings.

The third key point is that such issues transfer from one generation to another with poverty and debt passed down from parents to children. This entrenches this as ‘a way of life’, and increases the challenges of social mobility. Children therefore end up born into a life they perhaps would not choose for themselves and that they have little chance to change as either children or adults.

Key Points from the Other Presenters
Other presenters and the final discussion at the forum raised a number of other excellent points.

Emma Blundock and Amanda Starr from Allerdale Borough Council and Copeland Borough Council respectively reported that the boroughs properties were:
• 70% private home owners
• 19% renting social housing
• 11% renting private properties

Dem Tremelling from the local Barnardos targeted support team shed yet more of a local focus with insight that their clients were:
• 63% renting social housing
• 21% private home owners
• 16% renting private properties

It was unclear how many of these households included children.

Emma Blundock and Amanda Starr also shared statistics about the state of housing in the borough.
• 11% of properties were rated as having a category 1 hazard
• 15% – 22% of private dwellings failed to meet the decent homes standard
• 10.75 – 11.4% of houses in the borough were in fuel poverty.

Further to this there were:
• 345 people seeking housing advice in 17/18
• 184 households prevented from becoming homeless (20% of whom were families)
• 45 households were known homeless
• Of these 36%-40% had children
• 50% were made homeless due to domestic abuse.

Robert Porter from Jigsaw homes highlighted the tensions experienced by housing associations nowadays and a spectrum of response with hard nosed commercialism at one end and social and moral investment at the other.

The more hard-nosed housing associations are focussed on making profit in response to the government directive to make enough surpluses to be able to build new affordable housing stock. These housing associations also, however, have a £166K CEO salaries and £3.5Bn surpluses.

At the other end of the spectrum some housing associations are picking up the slack from austerity measures picking up welfare cuts. They support people with multiple deprivations in sensitive ways and go beyond the call of duty providing additional services.

There is obviously a lot we need to do as Robert shared the latest Joseph Rowntree Foundation research showing 365,000 children in the UK are currently destitute. Robert made the case that something has to be done.

Robert shared a model from the USA for constraint led innovation and implored the forum to avoid the victim mindset of ‘can’t do it’, the neutraliser mindset of ‘I’ll do it – later’, and to get into the transformer mindset of ‘we can if’.

Robert encouraged us to develop an integrated place-based initiative to address the impact of poor housing on child development outcomes.

I entirely agree – it is unacceptable that whole generations of children are living in unacceptable conditions that impede their development whilst many others look aside from their comfortable, warm living rooms.

So What Can We Do?

• Write to your Local Authority, councillors, housing associations, MP, Right Honourable James Brockenshire MP, the Secretary of State for Housing, Community and Local Government.
• Write to your local newspaper, parish newsletter, national newspapers
• Post messages across your social media about the issue
• Respond to the Review of Social Housing Regulations Green Paper at http://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/socialhousingregulation
• Set up a local group to discuss and move forward action in your local area
• Search for funding to develop some new solutions
• Encourage local leaders to work together across organisational boundaries
• Set up a charity to support people in need
• Provide people in poor housing with support to address the issues they face
• Put up posters around town to highlight the issue
• Give money to charities that support people who live in poverty
• Donate to foodbanks
• Volunteer, befriend some of these families, offer them support, work for a foodbank, support your local children’s centre.

There really are so many ways that we can all help individually and collectively – pick an action and go do it!

References (in order of citation)

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McGuinness, F. (2018) Poverty in the UK Statistics. Briefing Paper 7096. London: House of Commons Library.

Department for Communities and Local Government (2015) English Housing Survey. London: DCLG.

National Children’s Bureau (2016) Housing and the Health of Young Children. London: NCB.

Maslow, A.H. (1943) A theory of human motivation, Psychological Review, 50 (4): 370–96.

HM Government (2004) The Housing Bill. London: HMSO.

Harker, L. (2006) Chance of a Lifetime: the impact of bad housing on children’s lives. London: Shelter.

HM Government (2004) The Housing Bill. London: HMSO.

Department for Communities and Local Goverment (2015) English Housing Survey. London: DCLG.

Centre Point

Department for Communities and Local Government (2015) English Housing Survey. London: DCLG.

Department for Communities and Local Government (2018) Households Living in Temporary Accommodation. London: DCLG.

National Centre for Social Research (2005) The dynamics of bad housing: the impact of bad housing on the living standards of children. London: NatCen.

National Centre for Social Research (2005) The dynamics of bad housing: the impact of bad housing on the living standards of children. London: NatCen.

HM Treasury (2003) Every Child Matters. London: HMSO.

National Centre for Social Research (2005) The dynamics of bad housing: the impact of bad housing on the living standards of children. London: NatCen, pp.63-64.

Harker, L. (2006) Chance of a Lifetime: the impact of bad housing on children’s lives. London: Shelter.

National Children’s Bureau (2016) Housing and the Health of Young Children. London: NCB.

Scanion, G., McKenna, G. (2018) Homeworks: A study of the educational needs of children experiencing homelessness and living in emergency accommodation. Ireland: Children’s Rights Alliance.

Washbrook, E. (2010) Early Environments and Child Outcomes: An Analysis Commission for the Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances. Bristol: University of Bristol.

Cunningham, M., MacDonald, G. (2012) Housing as a Platform for Improving Education Outcomes among Low-Income Children. New York: Urban Institute.

AHURI (2014) What impact does a child’s housing have on their development and wellbeing? Perth: Curtin University.

Goulden, C. (2018) Destitution in the UK 2018. London: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Morgan, A., Barden, M. (2018) A Beautiful Constraint. Wiley and Sons.


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