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Social Justice

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

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.

Analysis from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has revealed 3.9 million children were living in poverty in 2020 to 2021. 

Its annual poverty report found around one million children under four were growing up in poverty even with additional support, and as a result are now experiencing the “sharp end of the hardship caused by the cost of living crisis”.

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?

Around 13.4 million people were living in poverty in the UK in 2020/2021, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. That includes 3.9 million children. 

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The Trussell Trust saw record numbers of people seeking help between April and September last year, with 320,000 people forced to turn to the charity’s food banks. That is a 40 per cent increase in comparison to the previous year. 

A total of 1.3 million food parcels were given out during this time – more than ever before. Almost half a million of these 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.

What is meant by child poverty in the UK?

Households with an income less than 60 per cent of the UK average are living in poverty, 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.

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) said: “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 recent report 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.

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.

The proportion of kids living in poverty whose parents or carers are in work increased sharply from 67 per cent in 2015 to 75 per cent in 2020.

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 3.1 per cent increase to universal credit payments is not enough to shield families from the rising cost of living. 

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. 

It’s a particular challenge for bigger families. Up to 43 per cent of those with two or more siblings were thought to be struggling for resources, according to CPAG. Single parent families will also be hit hard, with around a third of single parents admitting they’ve gone without meals in order to feed their kids, or have had to sacrifice putting the heating on.

Research from the CPAG has found that 35,000 more families could have their benefits capped next April, “leaving them with a growing gulf between their income and rising costs”.

Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group Alison Garnham said: “The cost of living crisis shows that the benefit cap is broken, and needs to go. It has always forced families to live on much less than they need, but as prices spiral the effects are brutal and over 300,000 children are among its casualties.

“In his cost of living support package the chancellor recognised that families subject to the cap face the same cost pressures as everybody else.  By the same logic, the cap must be removed to help the worst off families stay afloat. Next April’s uprating must be available to every family on benefits, as a bare minimum layer of protection against dramatically higher living costs.”

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.

Kids in inadequate housing have been shown to be more at risk of respiratory illnesses and meningitis. Those in the most disadvantaged areas can expect 20 fewer years of good health in their lives than children in places with more resources.

“Material deprivation” – which refers to the inability to afford basics such as food and heating – increased between 2019 and 2020, including for another 140,000 children. This means around 1.7 million children total are forced to go without essentials.

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. 

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.

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.

Laurence Guinness, chief executive of the Childhood Trust, which is supporting Denise’s family, 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.

Guinness explained hunger could have a significant impact on their 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. 

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. 

The Children’s Society is warning that government support does not go far enough as thousands of children are at risk of malnutrition this winter. Increasing benefits in line with inflation will still leave their real value 6 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, so the charity is urging the government to go further to help vulnerable people. 

It 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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