Two-child limit taking a heavy toll on family life, new survey finds

Published on: 
26 June 2019

• Family relationships under strain

• Several women reported considering terminations

• Parents cutting back on absolute essentials and siblings going without childhood ‘fundamentals’

• Parents’ guilt and shame at not being able to provide for children’s needs

• One million children in deeper poverty by 2023

Families in Scotland and across the UK are being forced to cut back on fresh food for children, are unable to cover essential utility bills, are accruing debt and are being forced to withdraw older children from activities like swimming lessons and school trips, according to the first  detailed research on the impact of the two-child limit in tax credits and universal credit. 

All Kids Count: the impact of the two-child limit after two years reveals the scale of suffering in families affected by the policy. The research, published today in a report by Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England, with contributions from Women’s Aid, the Refugee Council, and Turn2us, documents the toll the policy is taking on family life in low-income households. It includes new quantitative analysis by IPPR which projects that one million children who already live in poverty will be pushed further below the poverty line by the time universal credit is fully rolled out in 2023/24 as a result of the two-child policy.   

John Dickie, Director of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland responded to the survey findings saying;

“We wouldn’t turn away a sick child from our hospitals or stop them going to school and yet the two-child limit denies children and families  the support they need from our social security system when they experience tough times, trapping kids in poverty. Every child should have the best start in life. This means not just access to free health care and a good education, but a childhood free from poverty. We need to help children thrive, by supporting parents to raise happy, healthy children – especially during the first years of a child’s life. It’s right to support families when they need it most. The UK government should lift the two-child limit and help all children to thrive.”  

The two-child limit - which mostly affects working families - restricts the child element in universal credit and tax credits, worth £2,780 per year, to the first two children.  Third or subsequent children born before the policy came into effect in April 2017 are exempt.

The research published today draws on a survey of more than 430 families affected by the policy across the UK and 16 in-depth follow-up interviews with a representative sample of survey respondents, including two in Scotland (see case studies below and in the full report). Women’s Aid and the Refugee Council provided additional findings from interviews with survivors of domestic abuse and refugees. 

The quantitative research also projected: 

• By  2023/24 1.8 million children will be affected by the two-child limit (including siblings of third or subsequent children born after April 2017) 

Previous IPPR analysis for CPAG found 300,000 children will move into poverty because of the policy.

Paula (not her real name), a lone parent living with her three children in Perth, separated from her husband shortly after the birth of her youngest child. Prior to having her third child  Paula and her then-husband were not worried about money. The separation took her by surprise and changed her circumstances drastically. She said:

 ‘I’m really feeling the brunt of it because how I’d planned it to be at the time is worlds away from the situation we are now.’ 

‘I didn’t have any credit cards this time last year. I’ve got two now and they’re maxed out… [I’m using them to] cover daily things and about £30 a week just to pay for his special milk and bread’. I’m in a good bit of debt now, it’s not possible to make it work at the end of the month’ (her young son has a health condition requiring a special diet]

‘Both kids have stopped their swimming lessons, we can’t afford it. Amy has had to finish her football and Corey his basketball… she was at football six days a week and she misses it a lot.’ What makes it harder is they don’t understand why they could get something [before] and now they can’t’.

‘I feel like I’m being punished, and I’ve worked most of my life. And the one time that I did need a proper hand, and a bit of help, I’m just getting penalised for it.’

Today’s report,  is  published as  fifty-plus organisations – including  the Child Poverty Action Group, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, British Pregnancy Advisory Service , the Children’ Society and Trussell Trust -   launch a campaign  to abolish the two-child limit. 

Other parents responding to the survey reported: 

• Having to  cut back on essentials (95% said the policy had this effect): 

One (anonymous) parent said: 

‘I can’t afford the full rent if I put gas and electric on. Food is a minimum. I’m relying on others.’

Another reported:

‘I couldn’t afford inhalers this week because I’m more concerned about my children having food. Just praying I can make my inhalers last before I run out’.

• 88 per cent said the policy has affected their ability to pay for food

Lisa has four children.  Her husband works full time.  She said: 

‘I don’t buy foods that I would like to buy, just food that’s close to nothing… I would have liked to get them fruit. I can’t remember the last time I made a fresh dinner, it’s all stuff I’ve got in my freezer’ 

Another said: 

‘My partner become ill and unable to work due to disability and I’m now at home having to care for him and our four children. Me and my partner are literally not eating at all during the day to feed the children.’

• Using credit cards, borrowing from family and incurring debt in order to cover essentials: 

One parent said: 

‘I have amassed a huge amount of rent arrears because I can’t afford to feed my children AND pay my rent.’

Parents responding to the survey also reported: 

• Not being able to  afford children’s activities: 

Sam (not his real name) a dad of three working full time reported: 

‘It affects them [the children], you know. Creating memories - we can’t, we have no money. For holidays we’ve got no money to treat them to anything nice… just getting a round of ice creams in the park is expensive… We can’t take them to any clubs or activities or anything unless we beg, steal or borrow’

• Parental stress and worry about money at times leading to family conflict: 

One parent said: 

‘It has caused so much stress on our family that it is looking like we are headed for divorce. Instead of enjoying the birth of our baby, we have dealt with hardship and having to scrape together for meals. Borrowing money from family for milk and nappies…We had to borrow money for sterilizer bottles, pram, cot, everything you need for a baby… We are at an end in our family life and relationship because of the stress and hardship the limit has caused for us.’

• Most of the survey respondents were working or had worked:

Paula said: ‘I feel like I’m being punished, and I’ve worked most of my life. And the one time that I did need a proper hand, and a bit of help, I’m just getting penalised for it.’

• A significant number of the women interviewed had had an unplanned pregnancy (often because contraception had failed) and some had felt obliged to consider a termination: 

Janet (not her real name) a mum of three who is pregnant with her fourth child and whose husband works full time said: ‘I  tried to go through a termination but we’re in turmoil now thinking how are we gonna cope ……It’s a constant worry, you’re constantly writing stuff down and checking how much money you’ve got’.

• Parents were clear about how their children – and the family overall - would benefit if child allowances were reinstated for third and subsequent children: 

Paula said:

‘The money would give my children a sense of normality. It would mean the world… It would mean they could go back to their clubs…. It would get them out socialising and being with their friends and seeing family without me counting the pennies’

Government data shows 59% of families affected by the two-child limit are in work. Analysis for the report shows that for most affected families it would be impossible to make up the loss of the child element of tax credits or universal credit by working more hours:  

• a couple who have three children, one under two, who incur travel and childcare costs, and have one partner working full time for the ‘national living wage’ (‘NLW’)  and one partner not working in order to care for the youngest child, would have to have the non-working partner move into a job of 31 hours per week to make up the loss 

• a single parent with three children working 16 hrs for the ‘NLW’ and incurring travel and childcare costs would not be able to compensate for the loss of support, even if she were to increase her hours to 50 per week. 

Government statistics show families with young children and those with three or more children already have an elevated poverty risk. The poverty rate for families where the youngest child is aged 0-4 is 35%, compared with 23 to 26% for families with older children.  Families with three or more children have a poverty rate of 43% compared to 24% for one and two-child families.




Notes to Editors: 


The report, All Kids Count: the impact of the two-child limit after two years, is here

The two-child limit restricts the child element in universal credit and tax credits worth £2,780 per year, to the first two children. Before 6 April 2017 it was payable for all children in low-income families to protect them against poverty. Third or subsequent children born before the policy was introduced are exempted.  To date an estimated 160,000 families with 600,000 children have been affected by the policy.  Eventually more than 800,000 households with over 3 million children will are likely to be affected.  Fifty five per cent of families affected have three children. 


The report draws on an online survey of 438 families and in-depth interviews with 16 families, all of whom have been directly affected by the two-child limit. The survey was carried out from mid-February to mid-June 2019, using a benefits calculator tool created by the charity Entitledto to identify claimants who are subject to the two-child limit. Anyone who reported being in receipt of child tax credits or universal credit with a third or subsequent child born after 6th April 2017 (and who did not qualify for one of the exceptions) was invited to complete a short online survey about their awareness of the policy and the impact on their family. Our sample is broadly reflective of all families affected by the two-child limit in terms of work status, household type, and family size.

Sixteen survey respondents gave an in-depth follow-up interview to a Leeds university researcher, using a semi-structured discussion guide. Our sample was chosen to ensure a mix of family types from different parts of the UK.

In addition, we invited contributions from a number of charities that work with groups that are particularly vulnerable to the impact of the two-child limit, including survivors of domestic abuse (authored by Women’s Aid and including some data from Refuge), refugees (authored by the Refugee Council), and religious communities (co-authored with the Interlink Foundation).

We carried out several additional pieces of analysis to provide further quantitative evidence on the impact of the two-child limit, including:

Child Poverty Action Group commissioned The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) to     model the impact of the policy on child poverty in 2023-24, once Universal Credit is fully rolled out.  IPPR used its tax-benefit model, data from the 2016/17 family resources survey and economic projections based on the 2019 Spring Statement, to project impacts of the two-child limit.   

Submitting Freedom of Information requests, in order to collect additional data, including on the potential impact of the policy by parliamentary constituency;

Scenario analysis, using an online benefit calculator, to examine the scope for families to compensate for the effect of the two-child limit by working longer hours. 

The latest DWP official statistics on the proportion of families affected by the policy who are working  are here 

DWP data on poverty rates by family size and by age of children is here – Table 4.5db and Table 4.6db 

Child poverty (after housing costs) rose by 500,000 across the UK between 2010/11 and 2017/18, from 3.6 to 4.1 million, and is projected to reach 5.2 million by 2021/22 according to latest available projections from the Institute for Fiscal Studies available here. 

Poverty figures quoted in this release are for relative child poverty, measured as children living in households below 60% of median income, adjusted for family size, after housing costs.


For further comment please contact -

John Dickie, Director of CPAG in Scotland on 07795 340 618