I’ve spent much of the last 10 years listening to parents discussing what they think children need. Our Minimum Income Standards research regularly asks groups of parents to agree what is required in a family budget for a minimum acceptable standard of living . As both a researcher and a parent it’s been fascinating to see how they unpack the fine detail of things children need at different ages and stages of their lives. As we launch the 2016 report, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve heard over the years. How much has stayed the same, and how much has changed. Some of the changes have been quite subtle, others more distinct.
The research is conducted by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University, and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. We started this work in 2006, and update it annually, holding fresh discussion groups every two years to make sure that we capture changes in society.
At the core of the research is something we call the definition. It is the common framework that is used in all the discussions with groups, and outlines the living standard that people have agreed that everyone in our society should be able to have. It states that:
‘A minimum standard of living in the UK today includes, but is more than, just food clothes and shelter. It is about having what you need in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society.’
From the start our groups have universally agreed that in order to have a decent standard of living – one that goes beyond mere survival – everyone needs to be able to feel part of the society in which they live. The budgets therefore cover not only material goods but also participation in activities with their families, friends and peers, both inside and outside the home.
From the start some things have remained pretty much unchanged. Parents tell us that children need to be able to go on educational trips in term time, do activities outside of school, have friends round for tea and go on the occasional family outing.
This last item has been subject to more nuanced changes – going out to eat as a family has always been included, but the frequency and nature of it has changed subtly with each iteration. Whereas in 2008 this was a monthly treat, over time it has become a quarterly activity and in 2016 is seen as more likely to be a way of marking a special occasion, such as a family birthday.
Other things have reached a kind of ‘tipping point’ where they go from being ‘nice to have’ to something that is needed in order to provide the required standard of living.
Back in the early days of the research, technology was seen as something that was needed for purely practical purposes. The first budgets included a desktop computer for families with children, and internet access only for households with secondary school aged children, primarily because they needed it for their homework. A mobile phone was exactly that – a cheap, pay as you go handset, for emergency calls and texts for adults and secondary school children. It was included as a reflection that at this age children were likely to be more independent when travelling and socialising, and it gave parents peace of mind to know that their children could contact them and be contacted by them if necessary.
Over time, the need for computers and internet access has become ubiquitous, and the rationales for their use have transformed. Computers and broadband access are needed not just for educational opportunities, but are related much more prominently to teenagers’ use of social media as an integral part of their interactions with peers as well as the ability to access home entertainment, This also came into play with the change from the pay-as-you-go basic mobile to an entry level contract phone. As the devices became more sophisticated, so did children’s ways of using them in order to participate with friends and the world around them.
The 2012 findings also reported on the change from budgets based entirely on public transport and taxis to the inclusion of a car for households with children, because they found bus travel too inflexible and expensive. The emphasis here was not only on the parents’ need to be able to access a range of employment opportunities, but in particular their ability to ensure that children had access to activities outside of school time. Parents have always included the cost of swimming lessons for primary school children, but 2012 was the first time that they said that if you needed to get your child from school to swimming on time public transport was no longer suitable. More generally a second hand family car was specified as necessary to allow children to attend clubs and activities.
In 2016 we saw a shift towards nursery care for younger children. Prior to this, parents had described a model in which, if parents were working, families would use the services of a childminder (since the budgets could not assume that everyone has access to free informal childcare from a friend or relative). In the groups held this year, consensus was that parents needed to be able to choose the childcare provider that best suited the individual child’s needs, and that nursery settings were more likely to promote a successful transition from childcare to foundation stage education. Although nursery provision is seen to be a more expensive option than childminding, parents were adamant that the developmental needs of the child were the paramount consideration, and these should take precedence over cost.
What this seems to indicate is that our society is evolving in a way that prioritises the importance of social participation, from childhood onwards. This does not mean that everything is in flux. Some elements have remained stable. For example, changes in terms of food, clothing and accommodation are subject mainly to prices, which can go down as well as up (the cost of food has fallen since 2014). However, what we have seen is that the ways in which people think about children having opportunities and choices to participate in society are being emphasised in new ways.