Understanding how changes to family budgets can affect the likelihood of children being in care


This rapid evidence assessment aims to summarise the research evidence on how changing a family budget can affect the likelihood of children being in care. The evidence included two very different approaches – (1) interventions to increase the money available to families and (2) cuts to welfare benefits which reduce family budgets.
How family budget change interventions affect children being in care: A rapid evidence assessment
Summary report: How family budget change interventions affect children being in care: A rapid evidence assessment



The objectives of this review are to:

1. Build understanding about whether, for whom and under what circumstances family budget change can affect the number of children entering care and/or being re-united with their family
2. Explain implementation and economic issues related to family budget change interventions that are important for social care decision-makers to know


How we went about it

This realist review consists of two stages:

  • Stage 1: Building initial programme theory
    • Step 1: Synthesis of evidence from a previous scoping review (15 studies)
  • Stage 2: Testing and refining programme theory
    • Interviews with four professionals working on pilots of devolving budgets to social workers (one manager and three practitioners)


Key findings

Studies found that reducing family budgets through welfare benefit cuts was linked either to increased numbers of children in care or it made no difference. Increasing family budgets as part of a multi-component or housing subsidy intervention was linked to a decrease or no difference to the numbers of children in care.

Four causal pathways were identified from the reviewed studies to explain how increasing or reducing a family’s budget can affect the likelihood of children being in care:

  • A parent being forced to take on employment in a vulnerable family can have a negative effect on child care:
    • Supporting parents into employment can potentially be positive for families
    • However, if a parent who is a primary carer is pushed reluctantly into employment by the threat of benefit cuts, this can have negative effects on the care of children and family relationships.
  •  Changes to the home environment can affect children directly and indirectly, through their effect on parenting:
    • An increase or decrease in family budget can directly affect how well children are fed and kept warm and clean.
    • It can also affect parents’ stress levels, mental health and use of alcohol or drugs which in turn can affect the way children are parented.
  • The experience of homelessness can increase the risk of harm to children
    • If reduced funds result in a family becoming homeless, this leads to new risks to children
    • These risks can include family separation, alcohol or drug misuse and sharing accommodation with abusers
  • Practical assistance can help build trust and support families to get other kinds of help:
    • Offering a family money or other practical help can help to build trust with a professional. Families may then be more likely to accept other kinds of help they need.
    • Reducing practical problems for families can also mean that parents have more time to focus on other issues such as parenting.



  • Benefit cuts such as the two-child limit in the UK could risk numbers of children in care increasing.
  • Financial help is an important aspect of what children’s services can do to support children to stay with their families
  • The initial theories of how family budget change can affect children being in care provide the foundation for further research on how financial help is best provided.


What next?

What Works for Children’s Social Care and CASCADE at Cardiff University are currently conducting a pilot study in three local authorities – Hillingdon, Darlington and Wigan – trialling the use of devolved budgets to help reduce risks to children and young people so that they can remain safely at home. Devolved budgets are designed to be used to find creative solutions to family problems that might not be amenable to ‘off the shelf’ service-led solutions. Decision-making around the budgets is devolved to frontline social workers and their managers, who work collaboratively with children and families to decide how to spend them.

Interim reports from these pilots were published in August 2019, with final reports expected in March 2020.


Further reading