Child poverty in Scotland

More than one in five (210,000) of Scotland’s children are officially recognised as living in poverty [i], a level significantly higher than in many other European countries[ii]. In 2013/14 the proportion of children in Scotland experiencing poverty remained at 22%, after increasing from 19% in 2011/12 [iii]. This increase is in-keeping with independent modelling by the Institute for Fiscal studies (IFS) which forecasts a massive increase in child poverty, with up to 100,000 more children living in poverty in Scotland in 2020 than in 2012 [iv]. This forecast does not take account of policy announcements, such as the decision to freeze working age benefits, made since January 2014.

What is child poverty?

Child poverty means growing up in families without the resources to ‘obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities’ which are the norm in 21st century Scotland.

  • Children are considered as living in poverty if they live in households with less than 60% of median household income. This is the key measure used by UK and Scottish Government, and by the EU. Using this measure the latest (2013/14) official data shows; a lone parent family with two children (aged 5 and 14) is living in poverty if they are living on less than £278 per week (after housing costs have been deducted).
  • A two parent family with two children (aged 5 and 14) is living in poverty if they are living on less than £355 a week (after housing costs have been deducted).1

What are the effects of child poverty?

The effects of child poverty should not be underestimated and experiencing child poverty can undermine the health, wellbeing and educational attainment of children. For example:

  • Children form higher income families significantly outperform those from low income households at ages 3 and 5. By age 5 there is a gap of ten months in problem solving development and of 13 months in vocabulary [v].
  • Three year olds in households with incomes below £10,000 are two and a half times more likely to suffer chronic illness than children in households with incomes above £52,000[vi].
  • There are strong links between the experience of child poverty and poor mental health. One study shows that children living in low-income households are nearly three times as likely to suffer mental health problems than their more affluent peers[vii].

As well as being harmful to children and families child poverty has a wider cost for society. A 2013 study found that the high levels of child poverty in the UK are currently costing the country at least £29 billion a year. This includes the cost of policy interventions, long term losses to the economy, lower educational attainment and poorer mental and physical health.2

What causes child poverty in Scotland?

Child poverty is caused by a range of factors which work together and result in inadequate household resources. Factors which contribute to insufficient income include:

  • Low wages and underemployment: In 2013/14, 56 per cent of children in poverty were living in households with at least one adult in employment [viii], confirming that employment is by no means a guaranteed route out of poverty. While rates of employment in Scotland are growing, changes to the quality and nature of work [ix] have driven up in-work poverty[x].
  • Worklessness: Households in which no-one is in paid employment are most likely to experience poverty[xi]. Common barriers to work include a lack of suitable employment opportunities, a lack of suitable child care, caring responsibilities, ill health/disability and employer discrimination[xii].
  • Inadequate social security benefits: Despite being intended as a safety net against poverty, many families in receipt of social security benefits are living below the poverty line[xiii]. Around two thirds of households with children in which no-one works experience poverty. Furthermore, ongoing welfare reforms are a major contributing factor to the dramatic increase in child poverty which is projected for Scotland[xiv].

What needs to be done?

There are many steps which could be taken to maximise family incomes, minimise essential outgoings and mitigate the effects of poverty on children, their families and the communities and services which support them. These include:

  • Access to secure employment and decent pay: More than half of all children in poverty in Scotland live in families where at least one adult is in work[xv]. Given that low pay and job insecurity are a key factor in the existence of in-work poverty it is essential that all working parents receive at least the Living Wage a reasonable degree of security and opportunities to develop their skills and progress at work.
  • Adequate social security benefits: Benefit rates should be increased to a level which ensures that children do not experience poverty whether their parents are in or out of work. An important step towards this would be the restoring the universality of child benefit and increasing rates to reflect the increased cost of raising a child at the same time as re-instating the link between benefit uprating and inflation.
  • Increased uptake of benefits: According to DWP figures, between 19 and 23% of families in the UK are not claiming the means-tested benefits (such as income support and employment support allowance) which they are entitled to [xvi]. This highlights a need for more information and advice.
  • Affordable childcare: Overall, the average cost of part time (25 hours) child care in Scotland for a child under two is £5,514 a year, while the average cost of an after school club is £1,183[xviii]. As well as easing pressure on family budgets, increased provision of affordable, high quality childcare would facilitate access to employment for parents and carers and improve outcomes and educational attainment for children, particularly those from deprived backgrounds.
  • The removal of financial barriers to education: The provision of universal free school meals could save a family with two children more than £800 a year [xx], while also increasing levels of concentration and attainment[xxi]. Providing adequate School Clothing Grants to low income families and reducing the cost of school transport and school trips would also help to ease the financial pressure experienced by families.

For information, facts and figures on the extent, nature and causes of poverty in Scotland please see our publication Poverty in Scotland 2014 - the independence referendum and beyond.


[i] Latest 2013/14 Poverty and Income Inequality in Scotland figures, Table A1: Relative Poverty in Scottish Households 1994/5 to 2013/14, www.gov.scot/Publications/2015/06/7453/10

[ii] International comparisons are for 2011 on a before housing costs basis under which 15% of Scotland’s children live in poverty. Poverty in Scotland 2014 see Chapter 5 Figures 5.3, p90 and 5.6, p94

[iii] Latest 2013/14 Poverty and Income Inequality in Scotland figures, Table A1: Relateive Poverty in Scottish Households 1994/5 to 2013/14, www.gov.scot/Publications/2015/06/7453/10

[iv]. The most recent modelling (January 2014) by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that up to 100 000 children will be pushed into poverty by 2020 with the proportion of children living in poverty in Scotland forecast to increase to 26.2% by 2020, after housing costs are taken into account see http://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/7054 Appendix Table B2

[v] www.jrf.org.uk/publications/closing-attainment-gap-scottish-education Joseph Rowntree Foundation; Closing the Attainment Gap, Scotland 2014

[vi] Unhealthy Lives: Intergenerational links between child poverty and poor health in the UK, End Child Poverty Campaign, 2008, www.endchildpoverty.org.uk/files/ECPHealthSummary.pdf

[vii] www.jrf.org.uk/system/files/2301-child-poverty-costs.pdf Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The cost of child poverty for individuals and society, 2008

[viii] Poverty and Income Inequality in Scotland in 2013/14, Table A7, In-work poverty (relative AHC) in Scotland 1998/99 to 2013/14 www.gov.scot/Publications/2015/06/7453/16

[ix] Ibid and Analysis of Employee Contracts that do not Guarantee a Minimum Number of Hours – Office for National Statistics, April 2014 http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lmac/contracts-with-no-guaranteed-hours/ze...

[x] Wages, the Labour Market and Low Pay, Stephen Boyd, page 211, Poverty in Scotland 2014, The Independence Referendum and Beyond, Edited by John McKendrick, Gerry Mooney, John Dickie, Gill Scott and Peter Kelly

[xi] 64% of children in workless households live in poverty. (Table 4.5db: Percentage of Children in Low Income Groups by Various Family and Households Characteristics, UK, Households Below Average Income, DWP, 2013/14, June 2015  https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/households-below-average-income... )  

[xii] Wages, the Labour Market and Low Pay, Stephen Boyd, page 211, Poverty in Scotland 2014, The Independence Referendum and Beyond, Edited by John McKendrick, Gerry Mooney, John Dickie, Gill Scott and Peter Kelly

[xiii] ISER Note on EU 27 child poverty rates http://cpag.org.uk/sites/default/files/ISER%20note%20on%20EU27%20child%2...

[xiv] www.ifs.org.uk/publications/7054 IFS Briefing Notes (BN144) Child and working-age poverty in Northern Ireland over the next decade: an update (January 2014)

[xv] Poverty and Income Inequality in Scotland in 2013/14, Table A7 In-work Poverty (relative AHC) in Scotland 1998/99 ro 2013/14; www.gov.scot/Publications/2015/06/7453/16  

[xvi] Income Related Benefits: Estimates of Take-up in Financial Year 2013/14, Department of Work and Pensions; www.gov.uk/government/statistics/income-related-benefits-estimates-of-ta...  

[xviii] The 2014 Scottish Childcare Report, Family and Childcare Trust, www.familyandchildcaretrust.org/annual-childcare-costs-surveys