Child poverty: 1.36 million children living in families with significant barriers to work

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There are 440,000 children living in poverty despite their parent/s working full-time jobs – busting the myth that all families can “work their way out of poverty”.

As recently as November, prime minister Rishi Sunak said: “The absolute best way to ensure that children do not grow up in poverty is to ensure that they do not grow up in a workless household.”

However, for some years now the number of families living in poverty while in work has been increasing – in 2019/20, 75% of children living in poverty were in families with at least one adult in full or part-time work.

And for many families, increasing the hours they work or accessing work at all is difficult, according to a new study from Action for Children.

It states: “For many families, their capacity to work more hours to escape poverty and deprivation is severely constrained. Some are already working full-time, often in low-paid jobs. Others are unable to work more hours due to parental disability or ill-health or because they’re caring for a disabled child.

“Others, particularly single parents, are limited in the amount of work they can do if their child is very young. The extremely high cost and limited availability of childcare can make work unaffordable for many.”

Government figures show that in the year to March 2021, 3.9 million children and young people (27%) were living in poverty (in families with 60% of the median UK income after housing costs). As many as 2.7 million of these are living in “deep poverty” (in families with 50% of median income).

However, Action for Children’s report – entitled All worked out? – finds that 1.95 million of these children and young people are in families with at least one major barrier to finding work. The study finds:

  • Around 440,000 children are in poverty despite their parent/s working full-time.
  • An additional 641,000 children are in poverty where at least one parent is disabled.
  • A further 232,000 children are in poverty where at least one child is disabled.
  • An extra 500,000 children are in poverty where there is at least one child aged under two.
  • A further 137,000 children are in single-parent families in poverty where the parent is working part-time with a child aged three to 10.

Ultimately, 1.36 million children and young people are in families that have at least one significant barrier to finding work.

The report finds that single-parent families are more likely to face these barriers, while families with very young children are pushed into hardship by the “high cost and often limited provision” of childcare. Families with a disabled parent or disabled child are also among the hardest hit.

The report adds: “Department of Work and Pensions policy itself explicitly recognises, through its ‘limited capability for work’ designation, that lots of those on Universal Credit cannot and should not be expected to work. This speaks to a contradiction in the government’s rhetoric around poverty reduction and government policy in practice.

“The end result is that for many families facing barriers to work and looking for a way out of poverty and hardship, the government currently has no answer.”

The situation is widely expected to worsen given the current cost-of-living crisis and the fact that the government’s official poverty figures, last published in March 2022, do not take into account the full impact of the removal of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit implemented at the height of the pandemic.

Action for Children is now calling for changes to the social security safety net and childcare support to help more parents to overcome their barriers to work. Raising the child element of Universal Credit by at least £15 a week and abolishing the Benefit Cap would help lift 320,000 children out of poverty, it says. Both reforms together would cost the government an estimated £4bn a year.

The charity also wants benefits to keep pace with prices and living standards. Childcare support available to families through Universal Credit could help parents to return to work, it adds.

Director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, Imran Hussain, said: “We must confront the myth that everyone in poverty can simply work their way out of it. Our findings show that when it comes to supporting families in financial distress, work is simply not the silver bullet it is often presented as.

“We need more realism and less rhetoric from government in how we talk about the relationship between poverty and work. And we need a social safety net that ensures families can meet their essential costs and restores the link between a family’s needs and the support that is available to them.”

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