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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

A combination of coronavirus redundancies, income cuts and increased costs mean the UK’s poorest families are getting poorer.

Disadvantaged kids found themselves at the heart of repeated Government scandals during the Covid-19 crisis, between poor provision of free school meals and the patchy rollout of devices for children to learn remotely in lockdown.

Nearly six in 10 families told the Child Poverty Action Group they struggled to cover the cost of essentials like food, fuel bills, rent, transport and childcare.

But the UK had a child poverty problem well before coronavirus reached the country, hitting a record high shortly before the first Covid-19 lockdown.

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Children’s charities and food aid organisations are working tirelessly to plug the gaps created by the welfare system. 

And since Covid-19 crashed the UK economy, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford has repeatedly been forced to step in and lobby the Government to take action on child hunger.

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.

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?

Another 200,000 children fell into poverty between 2019 and 2020, according to government figures, taking the UK child poverty level to 4.3 million over all. 

It was a 15 per cent rise despite a £20-per-week increase in the median UK income.

And as many as 3.2 million children in poverty – three quarters of those whose families were facing financial hardship – lived in households with at least one working adult, demonstrating a significant rise for in-work poverty.

When the Trussell Trust gave out 1.9 million three-day emergency food parcels in the year up to March last year, 700,000 of those went to children.

These shocking figures do not take Covid-19’s impact into account, when redundancies, income cuts and soaring living costs in lockdown pushed families across the country deeper into hardship. 

More than two in five families told the Child Poverty Action Group they fell into poverty in 2020, meaning hundreds of thousands were struggling to pay bills and cover costs for their child during the pandemic

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.

But nearly a decade of austerity measures mean child poverty rates in other parts of the UK have been rising sharply, End Child Poverty said. Quickly increasing costs like rent have resulted in particularly concerning poverty rises in northern England and the Midlands, such as in Middlesbrough, where there was a 16 per cent increase in child poverty between 2014 and 2019 last year.

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.

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. 

Chancellor Rishi Sunak yielded to repeated calls from child poverty campaigners to extend the weekly £20 Universal Credit increase beyond the end of March, when it was due to end – but only for another six months. Experts say it could push more children into poverty when the benefit is cut in September.

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.

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.

If you’re struggling to earn a living during the pandemic, the Ride Out Recession Alliance jobs and training initiative is helping people back into work with job alerts and access to training courses. Click here to find out more.

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 have 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 – for the first time in 12 years. Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman who said unequivocally the Covid-19 crisis “is going to widen gaps, especially in the short term”.  

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. Living in financial hardship makes children more vulnerable, as well as making it more difficult for youth agencies to identify those at risk of exploitation. This was a problem heightened by rising poverty during the pandemic, she warned.

What impact has Covid-19 had on child poverty?

Schools closing in lockdown meant families, whose children normally rely on free school meals for a nutritious lunch five days a week, had another mouth to feed.

Councils across the UK provided supermarket vouchers and food parcels to cover the cost, but campaigners including Marcus Rashford had to fight for the Government to extend free school meals over the summer holidays when thousands were struggling through the pandemic.

Child hunger has been one of the major issues of the pandemic in the UK. Nearly one million kids signed up for free school meals for the first time in 2020. But many children were left without that vital support at half term last year, forcing businesses nationwide to open their doors and provide free meals to families in need.

And the Government came under fire again when photos of meagre food parcels were posted online, showing packages delivered to children that had only small amounts of food in them – before telling schools again they did not have to distribute free school meals over the half term holiday.

Families with children were also faced with soaring childcare costs in lockdown, particularly for those in low-paid jobs who were identified as key workers and had to keep going to work.

Women were more likely to be made redundant during the pandemic because they were balancing work and childcare responsibilities, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said, trapping them and their children in a cycle of poverty.

Children from ethnic minority households were hit hard by Covid-19 poverty, too. BAME workers were 13 per cent less likely to be placed on the furlough scheme by their employer, and 14 per cent more likely to lose their jobs entirely.