Changing the world for 50 years

Counting the cost of poverty

Posted on Tuesday 5 March 2013

Internationally-renowned social policy expert Professor Jonathan Bradshaw has come a long way since his early days as one of a group of young postgraduate students running a benefits advice stall in York Market.

Professor Jonathan Bradshaw (image:

That early desire to translate academic study into practical help for people struggling on low incomes has flourished into a highly successful research career committed to examining and understanding the causes and effects of poverty and social exclusion.

With the help of some of his enthusiastic market stall colleagues, he went on to establish the University of York’s Social Policy Research Unit (SPRU) over 40 years ago, an organisation now recognised as one of the leading centres for social policy research in the UK.

Studies carried out by the unit have helped influence and shape services and social policy to support some of the most vulnerable in our society including children and people suffering from disability. Families struggling to deal with poverty and employment issues plus health, social care and social work services have also come under the SPRU spotlight.

Over a 45-year career at York, Professor Bradshaw has pursued a particular interest in child poverty with a more recent focus on how to define and measure child well-being.

In the UK, it seems to be a harsher, more competitive dog-eat-dog society with more emphasis on material wealth, rather than emotional well-being

Professor Jonathan Bradshaw 

Public outcry

He played a leading role in a landmark UNICEF study on child well-being published in 2007 which showed the UK came last in a league of 21 developed nations. The result was public outcry and extensive media coverage prompting renewed commitments across political parties to the needs of children.

Recent research carried out by Professor Bradshaw and others suggests that while child poverty in the UK showed some improvements in the last decade, the well-being of our children is still a cause for concern. Despite comparative wealth, many children in the UK are just not happy – and certainly less happy than their counterparts in the Netherlands or Scandinavian countries.

“The challenge for social policy researchers is to try to identify what is different about the way children live in countries such as the Netherlands. More research needs to be done to examine this, but I have a hypothesis that it has something to do with the quality of the relationships between adults and children,” said Professor Bradshaw.

“In the Netherlands relationships between people seem to be more open and democratic. Children for instance don’t wear school uniform – they are seen more as equals with adults. In the UK, it seems to be a harsher, more competitive dog-eat-dog society with more emphasis on material wealth, rather than emotional well-being.”

It is a theme examined by a team at the University of York in more detail in The Well-Being of Children in the UK, edited by Professor Bradshaw and now in its third edition. And the issue is likely to be ignited once again with the publication of the next UNICEF child well-being report and international league table later this year.

Namibia to St Helena

Despite being partly retired, Professor Bradshaw is still busy with research and teaching work. He has just helped the government of Namibia with plans to introduce a child grant for the first time and, working with York colleague Professor Roy Sainsbury, he will play a key role in a review of social security reforms for the government of St Helena.

A lifetime of acclaimed research and writing was acknowledged with the award of a CBE for services to child poverty in 2005 and in 2010 Professor Bradshaw was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, the highest honour for scholars working in the humanities and social sciences. The Social Policy Research Unit (SPRU) was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2009.

As one of the University’s longest serving members of staff his greatest legacy is the award-winning research unit, but Professor Bradshaw – drawing on his early experiences at York Market – is also proud of a more local initiative that stands to benefit some of the city’s lowest paid workers.

This work has the potential to make a difference for low paid workers.

Professor Jonathan Bradshaw

Living wage

Major employers, including City of York Council, have agreed to introduce a Living Wage – a policy rooted in studies carried out by Professor Bradshaw and his team to establish the minimum income required to buy a standard shopping basket of goods.

“When social reformer Seebohm Rowntree carried out his first study of poverty in York, he used the cost of a basket of goods as measurement of the minimum income required. With the support of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we adapted and refined this method to develop a minimum income standard which went on to inform the campaign for a living wage, as opposed to a minimum wage,” said Professor Bradshaw.

“That work has the potential to make a difference for low paid workers. There are people out there who will benefit directly from the studies carried out at SPRU and in terms of a legacy, that’s an important one.”

And the influence of that celebrated market stall continues. The advice it provided is now delivered by the York and North Yorkshire Welfare Benefits Unit – an organisation chaired by Professor Bradshaw.

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