Tackling worklessness and its consequences for children

Understanding Society linked data reveal the relationship between worklessness and children's educational outcomes.


The Department for Work and Pensions recently announced new plans to help workless families break the cycle of disadvantage. DWP’s policy paper, Improving lives: Helping Workless Families, sets out proposals designed to improve outcomes for parents and children. It draws extensively on Understanding Society, the Millennium Cohort Study and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. 

Tackling the disadvantages faced by workless families is central to the overall development of government policy. The specific actions planned for England include:

  • Change the way local services are delivered to support families in difficulty. This involves the development of the “next phase” of the Troubled Families Programme, including more emphasis on helping parents into work.
  • Strengthen support to reduce relationship distress between parents, whether together or separated, announcing an innovative new programme, backed by £30 million.
  • Enhancing the role of Jobcentre Plus in working with local partners to tackle collectively the multiple disadvantages facing unemployed individuals in a better, more joined-up way.
  • A set of actions to address drug and alcohol dependency,  as recommended by Dame Carol Black in her independent review into the impact on employment outcomes of drug or alcohol addiction and obesity.

The report has set out nine national indicators (two of which are statutory) to track progress. Six of the indicators track the prevalence of parental disadvantages and three indicators track children and young people’s educational and employment outcomes. Two of the nine indicators (parental conflict and parental mental health) will be based on Understanding Society. 

Findings from the research

The research shows that having a parent out of work, alongside a range of associated disadvantages, has a detrimental effect on the whole family.

The analysis used Understanding Society’s linkage with the National Pupil Database for England, which contains information relating to children’s educational attainment in key national assessments. The research found that there were important differences between workless families and lower-income working families on children’s outcomes; for example, children who grew up in workless families were almost twice as likely to fail at all stages of their education.

Further, whilst it is hard to isolate the impact of any one disadvantage, two factors featured particularly strongly in the lives of workless families. Parental conflict and poor parental mental health often accompany each other, as well as other difficulties besides unemployment.

"We joined data on how pupils perform in key tests and exams to Understanding Society data – and this has shown us for the first time what a difference it makes to children’s educational attainment if they live in a workless family” (Improving lives: Helping Workless Families, DWP 2017). 

Download the case study: Tackling worklessness and its consequences for children