Every March the government releases raw data on poverty – called Households Below Average Income. Presented without government spin, we can look at the numerous tables and work out what these numbers – which look so benign on a spreadsheet – mean for actual children. Children growing up worried about money, missing out on things other kids take for granted, and taking the effects of poverty with them into adulthood. What can we learn from the stats this year? Child poverty remains at 4.1 million according to the main measure we focus on (children whose families live below 60% of the median income, after housing costs have been taken into account) – not something to celebrate given this is still half a million more than 2010, but at least it hasn’t risen. But there is a lot to be concerned about beneath this headline figure.
First, despite the continued government rhetoric that work is the best route out of poverty, 70% of children in poverty now live in working families – up from 67% last year. We now have record levels of employment and record levels of families working for their poverty.
Second, the face of child poverty is getting younger – the proportion of children in poverty who are under the age of five has risen from 51% to 53% (over 2 million children) and this is really worrying. Poverty is bad for children at any age, but given what we know about how important the early years are for development, and the recent rise in infant mortality among disadvantaged children, this is of particular concern. Parents with very young children are less likely to be working full time. The benefit cap – which limits benefits for families where no one works more than 16 hours a week or earns more than a certain threshold - disproportionately affects single parents with very young children (who are not expected to work, so might reasonably not be expected to work to avoid the cap), further holding their incomes down.
Third, the risk of poverty for children in families with three or more children has gone up from 32% in 2012 to 43% today. The two-child limit, brought in for babies born after April 2017, may be pulling these families under. They are also hit hard by the freeze on benefits as the cost of essentials has risen, and in some cases by the benefit cap.
Fourth, it’s important to look at how far below the poverty line some children are living. Today’s stats show that there are 200,000 more children in severe poverty (in families on less than 50% of the median income). There are 600,000 more children in severe poverty than five years ago.
At CPAG we tend to focus on relative poverty because it reflects how low-income families fare in relation to everybody else. Are we all in it together? But all measures further our understanding of poverty, and it’s particularly alarming that today’s stats reveal that absolute child poverty is rising. We would always expect this to fall as living standards generally rise – because absolute poverty compares incomes today with incomes at a fixed point in the past. Yet today we learnt that absolute child poverty has risen by 200,000. A warning sign – like the canary down the mine – it suggests families are facing real falls in income. Add to this the finding that material deprivation is on the rise in this data (there are items people need, but can’t afford) and it becomes clear that more families are lacking basic resources and are struggling.
We know why this all matters. To take just one reason, as argued in the BMJ this month that “child poverty is the one of the most potent drivers of lifelong ill health and health inequalities." And we know what solves it. In the short term the government must end the benefit freeze, restore the losses that have pulled families into poverty and re-build cross-party support for a comprehensive child poverty strategy with ambitious targets. Today’s children deserve nothing less.