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Alexandra Szőke

Topic: A Sure Start? Child welfare services, professionals and the recreation of socio-spatial inequalities in Hungary

Keywords: early childhood prevention, Sure Start programme, socio-spatial inequalities, welfare professionals, Hungary


Sure Start houses were set up in Hungary in the early 2000, adapting the British model, to combat social exclusion and compensate unequal opportunities related to socio-spatial inequalities. The underlying idea is that disadvantages should be addressed at the earliest possible age, as development can be influenced the most at this period. As such early intervention in the long-run can break the reproduction of social problems related to poverty, exclusion and segregation. Thus Sure Start houses were set up mostly in remote rural areas or town segregates, offering for families early developmental services, assistance, healthy food, washing opportunities, parenting advise and a place to play together.

My paper examines the complex and often contradictory effects of this welfare programme on socio-spatial inequalities and exclusion. Even though the working of these houses are centrally financed and regulated, my year-long ethnographic research conducted in three locations (remote village, small town and the capital) shows that in fact these houses are very differently organised with diverse outcomes in the different locations. This is partly linked to the discretionary power of the professionals working in the houses and partly to the structural constraints and opportunities within which they work. Due to limited funding, the availability of local resources and professionals largely determines the quality and content of the service, resulting  in the reproduction of existing socio-spatial inequalities. The more remote rural areas with little resources are not able to provide the material circumstances and developmental services that would be needed to compensate the place-based disadvantages of their clients, whereas in the capital or well-situated towns the houses can easily draw on local resources to offer multiple and good quality services. However, the everyday interaction of professionals with parents have the potential for both alleviating and reinforcing socio-spatial inequalities, depending on the attitude and personal conviction of the professionals. Through these personal interactions they can not only propagate certain ideals and norms of child raising, but also reinforce lines of social exclusion and the wide-spread differentiation between deserving and undeserving citizens. At the same time, these interactions can also lead to the opening up of informal and non-state channels of assistance that can alleviate exclusion and poverty. Thus my paper argues that we need to examine both the structural frameworks and the everyday workings and interactions, and attain a spatially sensitive angle in order to uncover the complex and often contradictory effects of such programmes.

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