The problem with David Cameron’s speech at Demos earlier this month wasn’t the speech itself but the way it took shape in the media, as a claim that parenting matters more for children’s development than a family’s material wellbeing. It isn’t that this particular claim is untrue. It’s that the claim threatened to frame the child poverty debate as a row over the relative importance of ‘warmth’ against ‘wealth’. Framed like this, the debate overlooks wealth’s real importance – not as an influence in itself, but its effect on parenting.
The Telegraph posted a report at lunchtime after Cameron’s speech under the headline: “Children need ‘warm and committed’ parents, says David Cameron.” By 3.30pm, it had been trumped by a report headed: “David Cameron: family matters to children more than income.” And this is the line that stuck. In the Guardian, The Daily Mail and (after a few paragraphs on Cameron’s warnings over ‘premature sexualisation’) The Independent. An Observer editorial singled out the ‘warmth matters most not wealth’ quote. And Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe précised the speech into two claims: parenting matters, money worries don’t.
So the headline that resonated was that warmth matters more than wealth. Anyone interested in Cameron’s main question: ‘why do some children succeed or flourish more than others?’ would therefore reflect not on the effects warmth and wealth exert together, but on their effects independent of each other. And here’s the problem. Anyone trying to defend income’s importance to children would be drawn into defending it against parenting, rather than as a contributor to effective parenting.
Cath Elliott on Comment is Free took on the Cameron claim by arguing, in Harriet Harman’s corner, that “socioeconomic status” is “still the single most important factor in determining individual achievement”. Elliott made a judgment on the relative importance of material and emotional poverty, and she got there by thinking about the effect of material poverty independent of parenting.
This kind of debate, between competing accounts of the relative importance of warmth and wealth, is rooted in thinking about different kinds of poverty in isolation. Voices seeking to defend the role of wealth risk getting lost as their strongest case – that parenting is bound up with income – stays silent.