Steep increase in number of children under-five living in poverty

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

Families with at least one child aged under-five have experienced steep rises in poverty in the last seven years, with worrying implications for children's cognitive and physical development.

Researchers warn that 36 per cent of children living in UK families with a child under-five are now living in poverty – this amounts to 2.2 million children and is up from 30 per cent in 2013/14.

An evidence review published by the Nuffield Foundation (Oppenheim & Milton, 2021) examines patterns in poverty for the under-fives over the last 20 years.

It finds that while poverty rates have fluctuated since 2000, there has been “a sustained increase” since 2013/14 largely as a result of changes to the benefits system, including the “two-child limit” (which restricts the child element of social security benefits) and the reduction of in-work support. Also to blame are the rise in insecure work and the growth of the private rental market (and reduced availability of social housing).

The review warns that child poverty can have a particularly severe impact on children under-five, affecting cognitive skills and physical, social and emotional development throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Furthermore, the authors warn that poverty rates are increasing even for families who do have work.

Since 2013/14, rates of poverty for families with at least one child under-five and at least one parent in part-time work increased from 38 to 64 per cent, to almost the same level as for children whose parents are unemployed.

The rate of poverty is also increasing for children with at least one parent in full-time work, from 19 per cent in 2013/14 to 25 per cent in 2019/20.

The authors call for increased financial support for low-income families with young children.

There are significant regional variations in child poverty across the UK. Child poverty in families where the youngest child is under-five are higher in England and Wales (35 per cent and 34 per cent) than in Scotland (28 per cent) and Northern Ireland (27 per cent).

Within England, the North East has the highest rate of early childhood poverty (46 per cent) followed by London (41 per cent).

Carey Oppenheim, early childhood lead at the Nuffield Foundation and co-author of the report, said: “The increase in poverty for families with children under-five is stark and has both short and long-term implications for children’s development and future. Addressing early childhood poverty requires an approach that provides a financial bedrock for families with young children through improved social security benefits and access to employment, as well as policies that support parental mental health and parenting from the earliest stage of a child’s life.

“Even with those measures, it will be difficult to sustain reductions in child poverty unless we also address longer-term changes in society that are contributing factors to child poverty, such as insecure and low-paid work, access to affordable and secure housing and high-quality early education.”

  • Oppenheim & Milton: Changing patterns of poverty in early childhood, Nuffield Foundation, September 2021:

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