Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Families and Poverty: Everyday life on a low income by Mary Daly and Grace Kelly

Within the book in question, families are defined as “a normative sphere, structural unit, and set of relationships that merit investigation in their own right” (2015: 5) -thus acknowledging that a‘family’ exists not only as a physical entity but also as a set of meaningful activities which serve to reinforce the family’s existence. 

This Barthes-esque (1957: 100) interpretation of the family adopted by the authors serves to create a research piece which acknowledges the individual interactions between each families structure, rather than reducing them to a standardized family model.
There are four main objectives within the book:
To contribute to the theoretical literature on families by offering a theorisation of the relationship between family and poverty/low income; 

To explore how decisions and practises around resource utilisation are influenced by family-related considerations, especially the well-being of children;
To examine the support networks (if any) that people have available – more specifically the support roles of (near and distant) family, friends and neighbours and the norms and expectations associated with such support;
To elucidate  how income shortages influence and affect people’s local and wider engagements and interactions and the actions and representations people undertake to maintain an acceptable ‘local face’ and ‘public image’.

In order to address the objectives, the book reports on the findings of a study conducted between2011 and 2012-prior to and during the changes made to the welfare state by the Welfare Reform Act.The research consisted of 51 open-ended face-to-face interviews with respondents in Northern Ireland who were a part of a family living in poverty or deemed to be low-income. The sample was drawn from respondents to the Northern Ireland Family Survey[1] who had given their permission to be re-contacted for the purposes of other research.

The book is structured into ten chapters, including an introduction and a conclusion. Chapters one to seven were the result of a thematic framework which focused on any interconnections between the key questions, themes and dimensions of analysis, as well as regularities and irregularities of association in order to identify explanatory factors.

The conjoining factor between all of the chapters is the focus on familial lives and their complex relationships with poverty.
Each chapter opens with an overview of the main topic being discussed and how the current chapter ties into the subsequent one. The chapter is further broken down into subthemes which are supplemented by supporting interview quotes. Each chapter ends with an overview section which summarises the chapter and reiterates the most prominent findings, supported by relevant literature or further data from the interview transcripts.

This layout is a useful mechanism in reflecting on the powerful insights offered by the research participant’s perspective, all the while ensuring that the individual voices and anecdotes are not lost within the wider debate of poverty-related policy.
The thematic layout of each chapter is befitting for the theoretical framework utilised to analyse the data.This format, coupled with the ties between the chapters highlighted in the introductory paragraph of each chapter allows for a consistent read throughout. The use of open ended face to face interviews provided the book with a real-life quality, something that is often lacking in research studies that are heavily public policy-related (Colechin, Griffiths and Wilson, 2015. Beatty, Gore, Powell, 2011). Despite the typical constraints of ‘biased’ research interpretations through the use of qualitative methods, the authors manage to maintain a sense of neutrality when analysing the data, any notable themes are thoroughly discussed and based heavily within a theoretical context before any conclusions are drawn.

Having said this, the inclusion of just one representative on behalf of the family unit only allows the input of one voice amongst a multi-dimensional unit, this in turn may result in further insights and different perceptions to be overlooked. 

This was an issue addressed by Backett (1990), whoconducted a study into health beliefs and behaviours in middle-class families by conducting three rounds of interviews with parents over a period of eighteen months, followed by a supplementary study with the children of the families.Although this research design is more complex than if one interview stage took place, a fuller picture of family life is generated. This is supported by Pahl (1989) who states that joint interviews allows for a thorough insight into the interactions and non-verbal communication within a family unit. Therefore, as the study focuses on moving away from the concept of families as being a logical category,an observational research method would serve to provide further insight relating to the enactments of a family unit.
A key theme mentioned in the findings of the research was the existence of the family as a complex series of relationships rather than a unit of its own. One example of which was members of the family being categorised as rich and not rich, in accordance to whom help can be sought from, and the relational context within which it takes place.

One interesting finding was the active re-designing of family structures facilitated by family members themselves, which in turn disproved the societal trends towards individualisation and pluralisation (Beck, 1992. Giddens, 1992) within the family unit. More specifically, Daly and Kelly noted that rather than there being a collapse of normative family structures, there was in fact a re-design of family structures, whereby extended family members and kin were included if they met certain characteristics i.e. were a valuable form of financial support or a consistent source of emotional support (2015: 110).

Furthermore, this selective isolation of
 the family in question also extended to neighbourhood relations, as half of the participants reported having no close contact with their direct neighbours (138:2015).  Although this lack of civic duty has long been noted as a common feature of post-modern society (Moroi, 2008. Beck, 1992. Giddens, 1991).

Another key theme within the text was that of transactions of support whereby meals were shared in return for childcare or other forms of return from neighbours, family and kin. These forms of symbiotic relationships were frequently mentioned throughout the book, and in turn relate to social exchange theory, whereby human relationships are based on a series of subjective cost-benefit analyses and the comparison of alternative options. Another example of this was through engaging with local community services, whereby engagement with a local service was conducted on the basis of what beneficial services could be received (Gergen, 2012).

A geographical element was also mentioned frequently within the book, with families choosing to remain within an area providing that it is geographically close to relevant provisions and other family members in order to cut down on travel costs and particularly the need for a car and the expenses that it incurs. This is supported by Young and Wilmott’s (1957, then followed up in 1973) study of family structures in east London, which describes how older relatives would follow their children into the suburbs where possible.

Overall, it seems that the argument that Daly and Kelly are aiming to present within the text is the notion of an abstract and fluid family structure which shifts from a tangible to a non-tangible form (and vice versa) in accordance to the family’s needs. This discovery highlights a gap in the provisions for family related policies and front-line services to accommodate such dynamic family structure.
Ultimately, the research presented in this book provides an engaging and passionate contribution to the debate around family life and poverty. Although the language used is targeted towards an academic audience, it would be useful to welfare policy makers and practitioners, as well as those interested in issues of parenting, money management, family support and local engagement.


Backett, K.C. (1990b) 'Studying Health in Families: a qualitative approach', in S. Cunningham-Burley & N.P. McKeganey (eds.) Readings in Medical Sociology. London: Routledge.
Barthes, R. (1957) Mythologies. London: Routledge.
Bauman, Z (2003) Liquid Love: on the Frailty of Human Bonds. Oxford, Polity.
Beatty, C. Gore, T. Powell, R. (2011) The impact of welfare reform and public sector spending reductions on low income households in Hampshire. Available at: http://www.shu.ac.uk/research/cresr/sites/shu.ac.uk/files/welfare-reform-low-income-hampshire-summary.pdf Last accessed [10/12/2015]
Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London, Sage.
Colechin, J. Griffiths,J. Wilson, T. (2015) The impacts of welfare reform on residents in Brighton and Hove. Available at: http://cesi.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/Impact%20of%20welfare%20reform%20BHCC%20final%20report.pdf Last accessed [10/12/2015]
Gergen, K. (2012) Social Exchange: Advances in theory and research. Berlin: Springer Science and Business Media.
Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self- Identity.Cambridge: Polity.
Giddens, A. (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies.
Cambridge, Polity Press.
Moroi, Y. (2008) Ethics of Conviction and Civic Responsibility. Lanham: University Press of America.
Pahl, J. (1989) Money and Marriage. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Willmott, P. Young, M. (1957) Family and Kinship in East London.London: Policy Press.

[1]The Family Resources Survey collects detailed information on the incomes and circumstances of private households from April to March each year. The survey has been carried out in Great Britain since 1992, but in 2002-03 it was introduced to Northern Ireland for the first time. 

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