Child poverty in the UK: The definitions, details, causes, and consequences

Here's what you need to know about children living below the breadline across the country

As Marcus Rashford leads the effort to extend free school meals and businesses across the UK organise to support their communities, all eyes are on child poverty. 

Experts worry the financial fallout of the pandemic is pushing record numbers of families and children into serious financial hardship.  Even before the coronavirus crisis, child poverty was increasing and campaigners were asking the Government to do more to protect people at risk of slipping into poverty.

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Children are perhaps the most vulnerable group in any society. Here are the basics on what child poverty is, what causes it and the impact it has.

What is the definition of child poverty in the UK?

Households with an income less than 60 per cent of the UK average (£29,600 as of last year) are in poverty, according to the Government. That means families earning £17,760 or less are defined as living in relative poverty.

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.

But in the UK, the Government defines absolute poverty as someone who earns less than 60 per cent of the median income in 2011 (£26,100). This means anyone receiving less than £15,660 per year is living in absolute poverty.

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.”

How many children are living in poverty?

There were 4.2 million UK children living in poverty in 2019, according to Government figures. That is estimated to be 30 per cent of kids in the country, or nine for every class of 30 pupils, and it is double the poverty rate of pensioners. That figure rises to nearly 45 per cent for kids with single parents.

And numbers are believed to have soared since the UK’s Covid-19 outbreak as hundreds of thousands of people face redundancy, though official statistics have yet to be released. More than two in five families said they fell into financial hardship in 2020 according to Child Poverty Action Group. 

This is likely to have made it even harder for many families to pay their bills. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported 72 per cent of children in poverty already have at least one parent who works. 

Black and minority ethnic families are disproportionately pushed into poverty, the Social Metrics Commission revealed. Nearly half report struggling to make ends meet compared to 26 per cent of white families.

Children in large families are hit hard by poverty too, with up to 43 per cent of those with two or more siblings thought to be struggling for resources according to CPAG.

Where is child poverty most common in the UK?

The London borough of Tower Hamlets has the highest child poverty rates in the UK, with 55.4 per cent of children living below the poverty line after their families pay housing costs according to research commissioned by End Child Poverty. This is closely followed by other London boroughs Newham, at 50.3 per cent, then Barking and Dagenham at 49.9 per cent. 

Birmingham has the highest level of child poverty outside London, where 41.6 per cent of children’s families are struggling to get by.

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.

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. Earlier this year a group of Lords said Universal Credit “punishes the poorest” and pushes them even further into poverty.

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.

This applies during the school holidays, when many parents who rely on their child receiving free school meals in term time find they have an extra mouth to feed on no additional income.

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.

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.