The number of working families struggling to survive is growing. How can this be the case in 2023 and can the situation be radically changed? Journalist Kaye McIntosh reports.
The number of children living in poverty in the UK climbed to 4.2m last year – up from 3.6m in the previous year – after the extra £20 a week payment for families receiving Universal Credit (UC) during the pandemic was removed.
The reality is that having a job no longer provides any protection. Most of these children – seven in 10 – are from working households, a 6% rise from 2020-21. All these figures were revealed in an analysis of official statistics by Loughborough University (Stone) for the End Child Poverty Coalition (2023).
For CPHVA Executive chair Janet Taylor, it’s a picture that community professionals see every day – due, in part, to the current cost of living crisis. ‘Hardship is reaching upwards, with more and more people falling into the child poverty catchment area. Those who were previously able to afford to look after their families are struggling and have less disposable income, while rents and mortgages are up.’
The latest figures, for the year ending March 2022, don’t even cover the period when the crisis really took hold, with the worst inflation rates hitting food and fuel costs.
The figures show families’ income after housing costs – so the money that remains to pay for everyday essentials, such as food. Poverty is defined as households with below 60% of median income (Department for Work and Pensions, 2023).
As well as meaning families must battle to afford the essentials, poverty sees them ‘struggling to enjoy a decent standard of living’, and ‘struggling to share the simple family experiences that all children should get to enjoy’, according to Action for Children. What’s going on?
‘Children are living in families where, unfortunately, parents cannot find work that pays enough to meet their outgoings,’ explains Rachel Walters, co-ordinator at the End Child Poverty Coalition. ‘Parents working on zero-hour contracts or insecure jobs aren’t able to guarantee their income.’
More than 3.7m people in the UK –that’s 12% of the workforce – earn less than the real living wage, something which campaigners say is enough to cover the cost of living. That figure is set at £10.90 an hour across the country (£11.95 in London), according to the Living Wage Foundation (2023).
The End Child Poverty Coalition, which brings together around 100 organisations seeking to alleviate child poverty, is calling for a rise in the minimum wage and for more flexible working opportunities to be made available. But it’s not just employers that need to act.
BENEFITS TOO LOW
‘The poor rates of benefit payments are a real issue,’ says Rachel. ‘Where people are either topping up their work with UC – or entirely reliant on benefits – that money is just not enough to pay for the needs of children.’
Paul Carberry, chief executive of charity Action For Children, is concerned: ‘We have a social security system that is not fit for purpose, that does not give families who are out of work or in work the financial support that they need to lift children out of poverty.’
When UC was increased by £20 a week during the Covid crisis, the number of children in poverty fell slightly – the first time that levels dropped more than 1% in a decade, the coalition reveals.
|WHO’S MOST AT RISK?
The coalition report found:
|More than 25% of children
in poverty were being
raised by a lone parent in
|More than 40% of children
in lone parent families are
poor, compared with just
25% of children with two
|Childcare is a particular
burden for single parent
families. The cost of
childcare has increased by
more than 50% in the past
decade, the report says,
much faster than earnings.
|Families where someone is
disabled had a poverty rate
of 36% after housing costs,
compared with 25% for
children in other families.
|Children from Black or
minority ethnic communities
are more at risk. In 2021-2,
47% of children in Asian or
Asian British households
and 53% of those in Black
households were in poverty,
compared to 25% of those
where the head of the
household was white.
and Stone, 2023
But in the north and north east of England, where more families receive older, so-called legacy benefits and didn’t get the uplift, poverty levels increased. Rachel said: ‘It shows that when you invest in the socialsecurity system and you give families theamount of money they need, it does make adifference.’ The extra payments stopped inOctober 2021.
Rachel adds: ‘Benefits just aren’t covering the essential costs of having a child such as school uniform.’ Most families on UC don’t qualify for free school meals: ‘They are missing out on a warm, hot meal that can help them learn because the threshold is so low at £7400 a year after tax, not including any benefits.’
The coalition’s report only covers the first few months of the cost of living crisis. But Rachel says: ‘We fear that the number of children living in poverty will have dramatically increased. When you talk to families, it’s just awful. The number using food banks is rising. Children are arriving hungry at school, not able to learn, not able to afford coats.’
Hardship has devastating consequences. Paul says: ‘We know that poverty destroys childhoods. It has a pernicious effect, along-term impact on families.’ It damages mental health and self-esteem. ‘Many of these kids will turn up for school hungry and as a group they will underachieve.’
The National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) for England found that in 2021-22 children living in the most deprived areas were more than twice as likely to be living with obesity as their counterparts in more affluent areas (NCMP, 2023). Janet notes: ‘People are buying what they can afford and sometimes these items are high in fat, sugar and salt. A healthy diet isn’t necessarily cheap.’
Earlier this year, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) raised concerns over the worsening health of children living in low-income families or areas of social deprivation. College president Dr Camilla Kingdon said: ‘Time and time again healthcare professionals have warned about the insidious nature of child poverty, how it takes hold at an early age and can destroy a child’s future by stretching long into adulthood. It determines the food – or lack of – a child eats, the quality of air they breathe and even a child’s life expectancy. It is systemic and wholly unjust.’
Children in families with two or more siblings are particularly hard hit. Rachel says: ‘Larger families are one of the groups that are particularly susceptible to poverty. When somebody claims UC, they only receive the child element for the first two children that they have. If they have a third child or more, they don’t get any extra money. This pushes families into poverty.’
And yet, Dr Kingdon suggests: ‘Poverty and health inequalities are not inevitable –nor are they impossible to reverse.’
WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
Abolishing the two-child UC limit would immediately lift 250,000 children out of poverty, the coalition says, urging the government to do so immediately. But the prospects aren’t encouraging.
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) told Community Practitioner: ‘The two-child policy asks families on benefits to make the same financial decisions as families supporting themselves solely through work, and there continues to be careful exemptions and safeguards in place within the policy to protect people in the most vulnerable circumstances.’
|HOW CAN YOU HELP?
|Janet says community practitioners should use their local expertise to help
families. ‘We can put them in touch with food banks, community groups,
faith groups and other organisations like Citizens Advice. Accessing the
right information and taking ownership of the problem is hard for people
because poverty affects their mental health.’
Rachel says: ‘We’d like to hear from CPs about their experiences,
especially if they are happy to talk in more detail or to allow us to use that
‘Some MPs say, I don’t know what you are talking about with these figures,
because they don’t hear from people who are experiencing poverty.’
People in poverty are often beaten down by a media and society that tells
them it’s their fault for being poor, Rachel suggests.
‘If a CP emailed and said, “I’m supporting 20 families who are all
experiencing a very similar issue, what are you as an MP doing to help raise
child poverty at Westminster?”, that would be very helpful.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme on 16 July that his party was ‘not changing that policy.’
The DWP spokesperson adds: ‘We know people are struggling with rising prices, which is why we are providing record financial support worth around £3300 per household and bearing down on inflation to help everyone’s money go further.’ That support (as laid out in the Spring 2023 Budget) includes a 10% increase in UC and a 50% increase in childcare costs that parents receiving UC can claim back, he highlights.
But the coalition want to see a concerted effort from all levels of government to understand and tackle the causes of child poverty. Rachel says the government should ‘bring together the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education and the DWP, looking at it in the round, so everyone is committed to reducing the number of children in poverty’.
‘And [it should] set targets to do it because if you have a target, it focuses people and minds.
’We are in this dire situation because of the government, Rachel concludes. ‘There’s no coordinated plan. We’ve been really disappointed – whenever there’s been an opportunity to influence the number of children living in poverty it feels like it has been ignored. There was not a single mention of child poverty in the Levelling Up white paper.’
As Dr Kingdon from the RCPCH put it: ‘We simply need the political appetite to tackle poverty once and for all. The health of our nation depends upon it.’
DWP. (2023) Children in low income families: local area statistics. See: bit.ly/3QHMO43 (accessed 3 August 2023).
End Child Poverty Coalition and Stone J. (2023) Local indicators of child poverty after housing costs, 2021/22. See: bit.ly/3OHzj2A (accessed 3 August 2023).
Living Wage Foundation. (2023) For the real cost of living. See: livingwage.org.uk (accessed 3 August 2023).
NCMP. (2023) National Child Measurement Programme 2023: information for schools. See: bit.ly/3OF6cgm (accessed 3 August 2023).
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