Institutional care and poverty: making common cause?

Roger Grimshaw
Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Consider this scenario: a social policy analyst examining evidence about two groups in institutional care notices that many members of each group come from a background of poverty and face an enhanced risk of poverty after leaving that care. Moreover, many in each group suffer disadvantages in the labour market, struggling with disproportionately high educational needs and mental health challenges. To cap it all, a quarter of one group –mostly adults - has emerged from the other group.

One of the groups consists of looked after children and the other of prisoners. Given what we know about the transition from care to prison, does it not make sense to develop policies on poverty that include both?

Here is just one conclusion of our international evidence and policy review about poverty and institutional care commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

In the Findings published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a new strategic approach to reducing poverty among children looked after by local authorities and among prisoners is outlined.  Though complex, the needs of the two groups are strikingly similar from a social policy perspective. While specific interventions are necessary, the key to effective change is a different approach to supporting families and individuals, delivering lifelong education for all and creating full employment in the most disadvantaged communities. In the case of prisoners, the evidence points to the weakness of current provision in challenging their high risk of poverty following release, strengthening the argument for including people who are currently under criminal justice control in anti-poverty initiatives within communities.

The review went much further than imprisonment and looked after children: it highlighted the importance of housing and supported employment for people with mental health challenges in particular; it showed how independent living had become a dominant agenda for people with disabilities; it indicated the need for services among people in immigration detention but revealed some significant gaps in our knowledge about poverty prevention.

It was through the experience of reviewing studies on poverty and institutional care that we were able to appreciate how entwined institutional living and poverty can be. At the same time we saw how de-institutionalisation for some has accompanied institutionalisation for many others: as imprisonment and immigration detention rose, so community-based provision for people with disabilities has increased. There has been therefore a historic change in the composition of the institutional sector, which has sharpened the challenge of social inclusion. 

Examining institutional care in the very broadest sense stimulates a critical assessment of its forms: why can’t more people now languishing in prison access community-based care that deals with underlying problems, whether these are unemployment, mental health problems or substance misuse? Why can’t more careleavers access the level of long-term support which acts as a bridge to stable housing and better incomes?

Criminal justice programmes are by no means enough to prevent poverty; a broader campaign against labour discrimination and increases in the demand for labour are more likely to benefit those disadvantaged by criminal justice intervention and integrate them into the formal economy. A bigger and more inclusive social policy programme and a smaller criminal justice system would together help make the task of combating poverty more manageable.

At our roundtable, on 17 November, we will seek to promote dialogue and strategic thinking in collaboration with organisations representing prisoners and looked after children in pursuit of a new common anti-poverty cause.