Child poverty in the UK: the definitions, causes and consequences in the cost of living crisis
Here’s what you need to know about children living below the breadline across the country
by: Isabella McRae, Hannah Westwater
27 Apr 2023
Millions of children are living in poverty in the UK. Image: Unsplash
Child poverty in the UK is reaching worrying levels. Paltry wages, low benefit payments and a cost of living crisis mean the UK’s poorest families are getting poorer.
Children’s charities, schools and food aid organisations are working tirelessly to plug the gaps created by the welfare system. Food banks are now being set up in schools so children have enough to eat.
Around 4.2 million children were living in poverty in 2021 to 2022.
Children are perhaps the most vulnerable group in any society, and often first to feel the effects of rising poverty across society. Here are the basics on what child poverty is, what causes it and the impact it has.
How many children are living in poverty in the UK?
There were 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2021/2022. That is one in three children.
Around 350,000 more children were pushed into poverty last year, according to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).
Food banks in the Trussell Trust’s network saw record numbers of people seeking help last year. Of the three million food parcels given out to people by food banks, more than 1 million went to children.
Just under 1.9 million children are eligible for free school meals in England, according to the latest government figures. This is 22.5 per cent of state school pupils.
It is an increase of nearly 160,000 pupils since January 2021, when 1.74 million (20.8 per cent) of students were eligible for free school meals.
But charities including the CPAG warn there are 800,000 children living in poverty who are not eligible for free school meals. To be eligible for free school meals, a household on universal credit in England must earn less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including benefits).
What is meant by child poverty in the UK?
Child poverty is when a child is living in a household with an income less than 60 per cent of the UK average, according to the government.
Absolute poverty, on the other hand, means something different depending on who you ask. The definition adopted by the UN means someone cannot afford basic essentials like food, clothing and housing.
This measure makes it easier to compare conditions between countries – as the minimum income to keep up with basic living standards differs depending on where you are.
Poverty can present in several different ways. If parents are struggling to afford food and rely on food banks, that is an indicator of poverty. Having to go without heating and electricity, facing childcare costs higher than earnings, or living in insecure housing because families can’t keep up with the rent, are all indicators of poverty. It can affect every part of a child’s life.
According to CPAG, “a child can have three meals a day, warm clothes and go to school, but still be poor because her parents don’t have enough money to ensure she can live in a warm home, have access to a computer to do her homework, or go on the same school trips as her classmates”.
Where is child poverty most common in the UK?
Child poverty increased most dramatically in the North East of England between 2015 and 2020, rising by over a third from 26 per cent to 37 per cent of all children.
A third of the North East’s rise in child poverty happened between 2019 and 2020, with families pushed into hardship by low wages and frozen benefits, according to research carried out by Loughborough University.
A report published in January 2023 by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) found that child poverty in Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-east is currently at its highest level since 2000/2001.
APPG’s co-chair Emma Lewell-Buck, Labour MP for South Shields, said: “Whilst poverty is, sadly, not a new experience for many children in the north, the scale and severity of deprivation is now unprecedented.
“As the cost of living crisis worsens, vulnerable children and families, especially in the north, are being pushed to the edge.”
Demand for free school meals is also highest in the North East, where around 29.1 per cent of children currently qualify, compared to just 17.6 per cent in the South East.
But, while the North East now has the highest rate of child poverty across the regions, many of the worst affected constituencies and local authorities continue to be in London, according to Action for Children. This is due to high housing costs in the capital.
The Childhood Trust has found 40 per cent of children aged six to 16 are facing food poverty in London, meaning their families cannot afford to keep them fed.
Laurence Guinness, its chief executive, said: “We’ve never seen levels of food insecurity at that high before. It’s an alarm bell, in the face of growing adversity and the diminishing power of household income. It’s really hard now for families on low and even middle incomes to make ends meet. And if a net consequence of that is as the children are having to miss meals, that’s really serious. That’s actually a public health crisis.”
Tower Hamlets is the borough with the highest rate of child poverty after housing costs, with a rate of 51 per cent, according to Trust for London. Child poverty rates are also high in other large cities like Birmingham and Manchester.
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What are the main causes of child poverty?
There are many reasons a child may be living in poverty. Soaring rent costs, insecure work and low pay plus a patchy welfare system are some of the factors that leave families without the means to get by.
But some children are more likely to be living in poverty than others.
Around 44 per cent of children living in single-parent families were in poverty in 2021/2022, according to the most recent government statistics. Lone parents face a higher risk of poverty partly because they have to rely on one set of earnings, but also because of low rates of maintenance payments, gender inequality in employment and pay and childcare costs.
Children from an ethnic minority background are also more likely to face poverty. An estimated 47 per cent of children in Asian and British Asian families are in poverty, and 53 per cent of children in Black, African, Caribbean and Black British families are in poverty. That is compared to just 25 per cent of children in white families
Where families whose youngest child is aged under five, 45 per cent of all children are living in poverty. Larger families are struggling more too – 42 per cent of children in families with three or more kids were in poverty, up from 36 per cent a decade earlier.
Disabled people or families with disabled children are disproportionately impacted by poverty. Approximately 36 per cent of children living in families where someone has a disability were in poverty.
The proportion of kids living in poverty whose parents or carers are in work increased from 67 per cent in 2015 to 71 per cent in 2021.
Campaigners and economic experts have repeatedly called for an overhaul of the social security safety net, particularly reforms for universal credit and an end to the two-child limit to receiving some benefits.
The five-week wait for a first universal credit payment has been blamed for rising food bank use and an increase in children living in poverty. New claimants can receive an advance loan, but this must be repaid – meaning their payments for the year are spread over thirteen weeks rather than twelve, pushing families further into debt.
The work and pensions committee presented evidence to the government showing the wait had a damaging impact on both adults and children, but ministers refused to investigate the problem or reform the controversial benefit.
The £20 cut to universal credit in October 2021 plunged families back into poverty after giving them light relief throughout the pandemic. As inflation continues to rise, the increase to universal credit payments in April is not enough to shield families from the rising cost of living.
The Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation have estimated universal credit claimants are £35 short of the money needed to live each week, meaning they are forced to sacrifice essentials like food and heating to pay their bills.
It means many of those who are unable to work – whether it be because there are fewer and fewer vacancies, because of disability or because of caring responsibilities – struggle to make ends meet even when claiming benefits.
How does poverty affect children?
Living in poverty can have a serious impact on a child’s wellbeing. Some report feeling ashamed and unhappy and worry about their parents. Disadvantaged children are 4.5 times more likely to develop severe mental health problems by age 11 than their well-off peers, a Millennium Cohort study showed.
It affects their education too. Research carried out five years ago showed that just a third of children who claimed free school meals achieved five or more good GCSE grades compared to two-thirds of children whose families are comfortable.
Children who were eligible for free school meals earn less than their peers, and the gap grows as they get older, new data shows. The Office for National Statistics has revealed half of free school meals pupils earn less than £17,000 a year by the time they reach 30 years old.
School closures during the pandemic hit the most deprived children hardest, while research by the Education Policy Institute showed the attainment gap between rich and poor classmates started widening prior to the pandemic.
Laurence Guinness, chief executive of the Childhood Trust, previously told the Big Issue hunger has a significant impact on children’s health – they will be lacking in vitamins, nutrients and proteins which will weaken their immune systems and expose them to illness and disease. It will also have an impact on their mental health.
Guinness said: “We’ve never seen levels of food insecurity at that high before. It’s an alarm bell, in the face of growing adversity and the diminishing power of household income. It’s really hard now for families on low and even middle incomes to make ends meet. And if a net consequence of that is as the children are having to miss meals, that’s really serious. That’s actually a public health crisis.”
Poverty even puts kids at greater risk of being groomed or exploited by criminal gangs, according to Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner for England.
How is the cost of living crisis impacting children?
Families living in poverty are struggling to feed their children in the cost of living crisis. Denise, a single mother of two young boys, told The Big Issue she is battling to cope and does not have enough to keep her children healthy.
The Childhood Trust is supporting Denise’s family. Guinness said: “The 11-year-old is fairly tall for his age, but he is so thin. You can see his ribs sticking out through his T-shirt. It is pitiful. These children are not getting enough to eat on a regular basis.
The cost of living crisis threatens to stunt children’s development and increase their risk of respiratory illness, paediatricians at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have warned.
In a study by the Childhood Trust, around one in three parents who said their children had raised worries about the cost of living crisis. Of these, nine per cent said their children had started self-harming and a similar number said their children had shown suicidal tendencies.
Denise reached out to her council, but was told there was nothing it could do. “Her children are starving and nobody can help,” Guinness said. “That’s where we’ve ended up. She can’t access government ministers, she can’t access policy makers. Her story is representative of millions of low income households, many of whom are in the same situation and can’t access any support whatsoever.”
What can be done to end child poverty?
Charities have said the government’s plans to combat the cost of living crisis won’t be enough to help families on the lowest incomes.
Chief executive of CPAG Alison Garnham said: “Investing in social security is the way to remove children from poverty. Indeed, the government did lift many kids from poverty with the £20 universal credit increase, but it plunged them back again with a subsequent cut.
“It’s inexcusable for ministers to sit on their hands. The government must extend free school meals, remove the benefit cap and two-child limit and increase child benefit. The human cost for the children in today’s figures is incalculable. The economic fallout for all of us is vast. But if the political will is there, child poverty can be fixed.”
The Children’s Society is calling for an expansion of the free school meals scheme, scrapping the two-child limit on benefits and extending the Holiday Food and Activities Programme to more children.
“There’s never a bold vision,” Guinness said. “I’ve never heard one government minister say we’re going to eradicate poverty in this country overnight. How great would it be to hear someone with a vision like that? A bold statement that could say nobody in this country, and especially not children, are ever going to go hungry.”
Labour MP Zarah Sultana wants to change the law to guarantee all primary school children in England receive free school meals. The second reading of the bill has been postponed and will be heard in Parliament in March.
She said: “This bill would tackle the injustice of child poverty in Britain, where around a million kids living in poverty don’t have access to free school meals, and it would bring England into line with Scotland and Wales, who are already putting it into practice. If the government was really serious about ‘levelling-up’, this is what they’d do.”
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