Martin Hodgson looks at the problems created by child poverty and the strategies used to try and reduce it.


New research has reinforced the belief that there is a link between child poverty and the cognitive development of children.

The study, Persistent Poverty and Children’s Cognitive Development — Evidence from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, published in June 2012 by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the University of London, was based on data of nearly 8000 children who were born in the UK between 2000 and 2001.

Researchers examined children in poverty at the age of nine months, three years, five years, and seven years old. It found that poverty has a lasting impact, with children born into poverty still suffering the consequences at the age of seven. This included lower scores than children of the same age who have never been in poverty in a range of educational assessments, including reading, vocabulary and picture recognition.

On a scale of 0 to 100, a child who was considered to have been in “persistent poverty” ranked 10 levels lower than a child of the same age who has no experience of poverty in their early years.

Children were considered to be in persistent poverty if their families were poor at the time of the current survey and all previous surveys.

The results of the survey have important significance for child poverty strategies in the UK, including access to early years services.

What is it?

Child poverty is a complex issue and concepts that once sought to define it merely as a lack of income have gradually given way to seeing poverty in wider terms of how it is experienced by families, and particularly by children.

The latest Unicef definition of child poverty, for instance, defines children living in poverty as being deprived of nutrition, water and sanitation facilities, access to basic healthcare services, shelter, education, participation and protection. It is the view of Unicef that “income poverty” does not take into account other dimensions of poverty, such as social exclusion, discrimination and lack of protection — all of which can have a devastating impact on the mental, physical and emotional development of children.

Unicef states that poverty is particularly threatening and harmful to children, leaving them unable to enjoy their rights, to reach their full potential and to participate as full members of the society.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the UK has proportionally more children in poverty than most rich countries. In 2010/11 it estimated that 2.3 million children were living in poverty in the UK, fewer than those who were in poverty in 1998 but far more than government targets would predict. The Child Poverty Action Group, part of the Campaign to End Child Poverty, puts the current estimate at 3.8 million, or one in three children.

Successive UK governments and all political parties have signed up to a goal of ending child poverty by 2020, enshrining this target in law in the form of the 2010 Child Poverty Act.

The Child Poverty Act 2010 (CPA 2010) provides a statutory basis for joined-up action across the UK and includes two main targets — to halve the rate of child poverty by 2010 and to eradicate it completely by 2020. The CPA 2010 also requires each UK government to publish a Child Poverty Strategy and revise it every third year.

Official statistics show that the first target of the CPA 2010, that of halving child poverty to 1.7 million by 2010, was not reached.

How is it measured?

There are many ways to measure child poverty and experts often disagree about how best to do this.

For instance, the CPA 2010 sets out child poverty targets for all children in the UK which include measures of:

  • relative low income

  • combined low income and material deprivation

  • absolute low income

  • persistent poverty.

“Child relative income poverty” is the proportion or number of children who live in households below the income poverty line, ie below 60% of the median level of household income in the UK. This gives an indication of the extent to which the incomes of the poorest households with children compare with the population as a whole.

“Child absolute income poverty” is the proportion or number of children who live in income-poor households based on the income poverty line for 1998/99.

The “combined low income” and “material deprivation” measure attempts to take a wider view that is not just based on income. A child is defined as poor on the measure if the household in which they live has an income below 70% of the UK median household income and has a material deprivation score of 25 or more, reflecting a lack of adult and child goods and services. Children in households defined as poor on this measure lack goods and services such as a hobby or leisure activity and holidays away from the home one week a year (not staying with relatives).

Who is affected?

Research shows that children living in certain groups, conditions or communities are more vulnerable to the effects of poverty than others. These include:

  • those in lone-parent households

  • those in households in receipt of social security benefits

  • those in households with no adults in employment

  • children leaving care

  • homeless children or children living in poor housing

  • children from some travelling families.

There is further evidence that children living in larger households, with three children or more, may be more vulnerable to poverty, as are children living in families which include disabled adults or younger mothers. Child poverty may also be more common in inner city areas, in areas where there are limited job prospects and in some rural communities.

What is the result?

The Centre for Longitudinal Studies research shows that persistent poverty has a detrimental effect on child cognitive development but this is just one area where children from disadvantaged backgrounds may suffer long-term problems compared to the rest of the population.

A range of studies shows that the negative impacts of relative disadvantage on the educational, cognitive, behavioural, general health and obesity outcomes for children is measurable at the age of five and that these negative impacts represent a continuing hurdle which many children will struggle to overcome throughout their lives.

These hurdles can translate, in later years, into:

  • lower educational achievement and aspirations

  • increased risk of welfare dependency

  • chaotic family and personal lifestyles and risk behaviours

  • poorer health.

Poor health outcomes are also linked to both fuel and food poverty.

What can be done about it?

Despite all governments and political parties being committed to ending child poverty, it is acknowledged that it is a very complex issue and not a problem that can be tackled easily or in the short term.

Evidence suggests that poverty tends to be cyclical with children living in poverty often going on to have children of their own who in turn experience poverty. Strategies to end child poverty therefore need to break this cycle and tend to focus on two main areas.

  • Reducing poorly paid work and unemployment among adults with children.

  • Improving longer term prospects through child-based interventions.

The first of these approaches has a focus on improving job prospects and pay for poor families. The second includes increasing access to early years education and school attendance for children from poor families and improving the environmental conditions that cause child poverty to persist through generations and through communities.

These approaches are supported by a wide variety of other measures, such as fuel poverty strategies, welfare reform and neighbourhood renewal.

Current strategies

A New Approach to Child Poverty: Tackling the Causes of Disadvantage and Transforming Families' Lives is the latest national Child Poverty Strategy for England. Published in April 2011 following a consultation, it sets out an approach based on strengthening families, encouraging responsibility, promoting employment, guaranteeing fairness and providing support to the most vulnerable.

In particular, the strategy includes the following.

  • A focus on ensuring that families who are in work are supported to work themselves out of poverty, families who are unable to work are able to live with dignity and not entrenched in persistent poverty, and that those who can work but are not in work are provided with services that will help them overcome barriers to work.

  • A focus on improving children’s future life chances by intervening early to improve the development and attainment of disadvantaged children.

  • A focus on delivering services as close to the family as possible by empowering local partners.

Commenting on the launch of the strategy, children’s minister Sarah Teather said: "Every child deserves a happy life free from poverty and free from fear. Children face too many difficulties in today’s Britain. In this strategy we re-commit ourselves to ending child poverty by 2020 and breaking the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage that has blighted children’s lives and aspirations for too long."

Similar strategies to fulfil obligations set out under the CPA 2010 have been launched in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland as follows.

  • The Child Poverty Strategy for Wales was published in February 2011 for the period 2011–14.

  • The Child Poverty Strategy for Scotland was published in March 2011, again with a three-year span.

  • Improving Children's Life Chances: The Child Poverty Strategy for Northern Ireland, was published in March 2011.

All these strategies link to early years policies that seek to widen access to early years education and ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have improved opportunities to attend nursery education, setting them up well to make a successful move on into primary school. Breaking down these barriers to learning is seen as a key element in altering the child poverty cycle and should be supported by all early years provisions.

Local partnerships

An area where the Government claims good progress has been made is in “local partnerships” — an approach that seeks to support local groups to work together to produce integrated plans.

The approach is demonstrated through a number of child poverty pilots which were run in England through to March 2011. The pilots were evaluated by the Government’s Child Poverty Unit and involved local areas developing and trialing different ways to support low-income families.

Initiatives included:

  • supporting parents to build skills and confidence

  • reducing the costs involved with looking for work

  • helping parents to access early years services

  • providing benefits advice to address the perception that people may be worse off financially in work.

The Government intends to make emerging good practice available so that local authorities and other partners are able to build on these approaches.

Early years providers should contact their local authorities to find out what schemes operate locally and how they can contribute.

Improving education

The Millennium Cohort Study shows that persistent poverty has a long-term impact on children's cognitive development and underlines the need not only to raise families out of poverty but also to improve their access to education.

Failing to achieve this aim will merely see the cycle of poverty and low attainment continue.

Priority actions include the following.

  • Providing all children and young people with opportunities to reach their educational attainment regardless of their background and addressing barriers to children achieving their full potential.

  • Supporting disadvantaged families to promote the physical, social, intellectual and emotional development of their children so that they flourish at home and when they get to school.

  • Targeting young people not in education, employment or training, creating training and employment opportunities.

  • Supporting the delivery of an accessible, flexible and high-quality childcare and early years sector which is effective in reducing barriers to employment, particularly those experienced by disadvantaged groups, and supports child development and well being.

It can be seen from the above how important joint working is in any attempt to deal with child poverty, as the fields of employment, childcare, welfare, child health and education are so thoroughly interrelated. The list also underlines the importance of the childcare and early years sectors in any child poverty strategy.

The Campaign to End Child Poverty has long asked for the Government to ensure access to high-quality early years provision for every child from a low-income family. Early years provision, it states, has been shown in particular to give children from poorer backgrounds a better start in school, including enhancing the child’s social, emotional and linguistic development.

The Government has responded by making a significant investment in expanding early years provision, particularly in disadvantaged communities, through Sure Start Children’s Centres and the expansion of the early years free places scheme.

Reaction to the strategy

However, while everyone is committed to the aim of eradicating child poverty there is some controversy over the current strategy in England.

Expenditure reduction introduced by the Government means that public spending, and the mechanisms by which to address the issue of child poverty, are being constrained and children's charity Unicef warns that such spending cuts could reverse progress made on tackling child poverty.

Between 2010/11 and 2013/14, average incomes are forecast to stagnate and both absolute and relative poverty among children and working-age adults are expected to rise, according to projections funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

In addition, charities campaigning against child poverty reacted angrily to the fact that the Government produced their strategy without expert input from a Child Poverty Commission, a panel of experts which had been initially promised by ministers. A judicial review found that the Government had acted unlawfully and a Child Poverty and Social Mobility Commission was subsequently set up.

The Commission, chaired by ex-MP Alan Milburn, intends to publish a report on progress against the child poverty strategy later in 2012.

Further information

A range of different organisations and charities supports work to end child poverty. These include:

  • The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) whose website can be found here

  • Barnardo’s, whose website can be found here

The Campaign to End Child Poverty is made up of more than 150 organisations from civic society including children’s charities, child welfare organisations, social justice groups, faith groups, trade unions and others. Its website can be found here.

Last reviewed 27 November 2012