‘It takes a village to raise a child’, according to the African proverb. Enabling children to grow in a safe and healthy environment relies not just on their immediate relatives, but also on the wider community. Many of us can relate to this if we think back to our own childhoods and our interactions with teachers, neighbours, extended family and others. And there is a strong evidence base that children’s experiences during their early years are likely to shape the rest of their lives, whether it’s their attainment at school and in turn their future job prospects, through to their long-term health outcomes.

It got us thinking: if it takes a village, then shouldn’t we also think about the socioeconomic conditions of the ‘village’ and what governments can do to allow communities and children to thrive? This policy area deserves focus – parenting is tough, but it becomes easier if you have access to enough money, live in stable housing and have a supportive network of friends and family around you. As a result, children’s outcomes in life are closely linked to where their family sits on the socioeconomic spectrum. The government has signalled their commitment to children and families through funding ‘family hubs’ and parenting programmes – but do they go far enough?

Children and families were the topics of recent work led by the Race Equality Foundation, focusing on the experiences and needs of minority ethnic groups – we collaborated to publish the findings of this work earlier this year.

Why the focus on families from minority ethnic backgrounds?

Not all families have the same experiences. Those from minority ethnic backgrounds in the UK experience particular disadvantage, where they are two to three times more likely to live in persistent poverty than people in white families. On average, people from minority ethnic groups have lower incomes, higher unemployment and are more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation than white British groups. These circumstances have been a key driver of the disproportionate and negative impact of COVID-19 on people from minority ethnic groups.

But many of the reasons for this disadvantage can be linked to racial discrimination – in education, the job market, the criminal justice system and in access to housing – which means that these families are more likely to face poverty. For instance, parents from minority ethnic groups may struggle more in the labour market, where applicants with Pakistani names have to apply for 1.5 times as many jobs as a white British applicant to get an employer call-back. Black people, and particularly young black people, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, due to the disproportionate use of stop and search and harsher sentencing practices. These experiences of racism and discrimination shape the economic, commercial and environmental conditions that create – or restrict – the opportunities for families from minority ethnic groups to be healthy.

The benefits of a strengths-based approach

Parents obviously play an important role in most children’s lives and can protect and buffer some of the effects of disadvantage. Many children from minority ethnic backgrounds thrive within multigenerational families and broad community networks which come with many benefits to health and wellbeing. The Race Equality Foundation take this strengths-based approach to promote the protective factors which are associated with good parenting and better outcomes for children, particularly through their Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities programme. This programme has demonstrated positive impacts for parents and children from a range of backgrounds – such initiatives should be given greater policy attention and support.

However, much of the support for parents over the past three decades has fallen short of family needs. Rather than focusing on the ‘village’, responsibility has been placed on individual parents. Policy discourse has often ignored the societal context, not recognising the wider causes of socioeconomic inequalities and the resulting struggles families may face.

Addressing racial inequalities to give children the best start

COVID-19 has highlighted the urgent case for policymakers to address the socioeconomic inequalities that can disproportionately affect families from minority ethnic backgrounds. Recent government funding of family hubs and parenting programmes are welcome, but more will be needed after cuts to children’s services and the removal of the £20 uplift to those on Universal Credit during the pandemic, which have impacted families the most. The government will need a broader focus with a long-term commitment to build back better for all families. 

The Race Equality Foundation have been leading a set of collaborations bringing stakeholders together to draw up recommendations for addressing racial inequity in the UK’s recovery from COVID-19. Focusing our research on children and families has helped us better understand the racial disparities in young people’s experiences of disruptions to education, employment, their social relationships and their wellbeing during the pandemic. We hope these findings, and those from the Young people’s future health inquiry, will inform the planning and development of policy solutions that reach families, children and young people from all backgrounds.

Parenting is tough – that’s why the ‘village’ is needed. It is time to mobilise wider support to enable families to flourish and give children the best start in life.

Anita Mehay (@AnitaMehay) is an Improvement Fellow at the Health Foundation.

Cara Leavey (@caraleavey) is a Policy and Programme Officer in the Healthy Lives team at the Health Foundation.

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