Why addiction traps children in poverty

Why addiction traps children in poverty

1st February 2013

A poll yesterday showed that 90 per cent of the public believe parental addiction is the biggest factor in whether a child grows up in poverty. Yet this is not currently included in how child poverty is measured.

Under the current measure, a child is judged to be in poverty if they grow up in a household with an income below 60 per cent of the national median. One problem with this crude measure is that it does not look at other social factors, for example addiction. We know from a bank of evidence that if parents are struggling with addiction, household income is often diverted away from children.

There are an estimated 380,000 problematic drug users in the UK aged between 15-64 while 1.6 million are classed as dependent on alcohol. Meanwhile, it is estimated that 1 million are addicted to prescription drugs.  Many of these people are parents whose children grow up surrounded by substance abuse. For those in treatment for drugs alone (50 per cent) 105,780 are either parents or live with a child.

Ignoring parental addiction has tragic consequences: 62 per cent of children subject to care proceedings and 40 per cent of children on the child protection register experienced parental substance misuse. Give a few extra pounds to a heroin-addicted mother and the chances are that these benefits will be spent feeding her habit, rather than looking after her child.  What needs to happen, to really tackle poverty both of the mother and the child, is proper intervention, beyond a simple welfare cheque.

The surest way out of poverty is work, both for the parent and the child growing up, but 85 per cent of those in treatment for drugs have not been in regular employment.  Nothing smothers aspiration more than growing up in a workless household.  However for so many struggling with addiction, work is a world away.


Parents need to be helped off drugs, that means off all drugs, not simply stranded on a methadone programme and left dependent on it for years, as a quarter of current patients are. This process is not easy and requires much support. For some addicts, who’ve grown up in substance-abusing households, it is not rebuilding their lives after addiction, it is about building a life for the first time without the artificial crutch of a chemical.

Addiction blights generations of the same families, entrenching poverty in our most deprived communities. It also blights the lives of those otherwise considered prosperous.  Perhaps more than any other ‘pathway to poverty’ addiction can lay the mighty low.  A child, with a wealthy parent addicted to drugs, will be living in a form of poverty and it is essential that this is recognised as such.  As the Government has recognised, there is more to poverty than low income.

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