Child Poverty in UK in 2019

5th April 2019

The government’s latest child poverty statistics made for interesting, yet grim reading and if anything, posed more questions than answers. There were a number of headline figures that bear laying out and examining further.

  • Absolute poverty has risen by 200,000 to 3.7 million children
  • Relative Child Poverty remained broadly stable at 4.1 million
  • 70% of these children now come from working families – up from 67% last year
  • 53% of children in poverty are aged under five

There are several things to take away from this. The first is that the figures do not read well from the Government’s point of view, as it has often defended its record on child poverty by pointing out that the measure of absolute poverty was falling.

There has always been contention about the most appropriate way to measure child poverty, but to see that even this metric is now rising warrants a genuine rethink of where we are headed and why. That relative poverty is stable is little cause for celebration either. Having risen steadily since 2011, in one of the world’s most advanced economies, it cannot be right that nearly 1 in 3 children are living so tenuously. For us here at Buttle UK, these are not just figures on a spreadsheet, they represent the experience of children and young people we see daily through applications for support. As John Dickie of CPAG Scotland has put it:

"These aren't just statistics. These are children going hungry, missing out on school trips, unable to enjoy the activities and opportunities their better-off peers take for granted. These are parents going without meals, juggling debt and seeing their own health suffer to protect their children from the poverty they face."

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has singled out cuts to benefits and social welfare as main drivers of the increase, noting that: “The benefits freeze is the single biggest policy driver behind rising poverty in the UK.” By one estimation the two-child limit stands to have increased the number of children living in poverty by 250,000 by the end of the decade. 

A recent Resolution Foundation report forecasts a rise in child poverty to record levels of up to 37% by 2023/24 from current figures – meaning a shocking 5.2 million children could be left in poverty. Their report is very clear that once again, significant changes to the benefits system are needed to avoid this. 

In Scotland, where Holyrood has a little more room for manoeuvre on such issues, the Scottish Parliament Information Centre has laid out a number of different options, and likely outcomes for benefit reform, with the same £0.8billion costing. However, by their own projections, even the most effective policy option at this cost level is insufficient to bring relative poverty down to the Scottish Governments own targets as set by the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017. 

Whatever your views on the changes the Government has made to the benefits system over recent years, few would disagree that the key to avoiding entrenched, long term poverty is to make sure that people can access better-paid, fulfilling work that does not leave them struggling to afford the basic necessities needed to get on in life. Indeed, the narrative that work is the surest way out of poverty has underpinned many of the Government’s welfare reforms.

However, given the growing number of ‘working poor,’ concerns should be raised about the type of work many are being compelled to take. The percentage of children in poverty that now come from working families is rising; from 67% to 70% in one year, meaning those in work are increasingly feeling the pinch too.

On the other hand, it is also important not to allow the system to penalise children from families where parents cannot work. For instance, in the case of the benefit cap, which was again meant to incentivise work, the Work and Pensions Select Committee ultimately found that only 18% of those affected were deemed to be able to work. Many were disabled, or single parents with young children. This last financial year, we saw 79% of our grants go to single-parent households.

Larger families with three or more children are also finding themselves increasingly at risk of falling into poverty. If any administration is serious about reducing child poverty among this at-risk demographic, it is hard to see how a two-child limit on child benefit does not run counter to said aim.

Finally, there is another, particularly worrying trend of children in poverty coming from increasingly younger demographics. Today, 53% of children in poverty are under 5 years old, a rise of 2% in the last year. We know the impact poverty can have on early years development, with one recent study in Scotland finding that material deprivation across areas lead to some children having over twice the number of concerns raised about their development.

Many of the practical considerations John Dickie mentions are exactly those covered by our Chances for Children grants. By helping to mitigate the practical effects of poverty on a child or young person’s development we can enable them to reengage with education constructively. This offers them the chance of more secure, and better paid work in the future.

A child or young person’s education and training matters now more than ever if they are to secure the type of employment needed to break the cycle of entrenched poverty. It is important that we enable young people to make the most of their development and not be encumbered by financial barriers outside their control.

The Government can help, by using these latest figures to take stock, and move child poverty further up its agenda. In the meantime, it is incumbent on us to do more via our Chances for Children grants.

Both of these actions need us, both of these actions need you.

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