What is Child Poverty?


A definition of poverty that is widely used was provided by Peter Townsend:

Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities, and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies to which they belong. Their resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary patterns, customs and activities[1]

The measure of poverty that is used by most governments around the world, including the UK, is ‘those households whose income falls below 60% of the median income’, before housing costs (BHC) are taken into consideration. So, in the UK the median income (BHC) for a couple with 2 children is £623 per week and 60% of that figure is £374 per week. If a family have income per week of less than £374 per week, they are defined as living in poverty[2]. Remember, this is total income and not disposable income. This £374 has to cover housing, all utilities, food, clothing, travel, insurance, savings, leisure, hobbies and so on and so on. A workless household with a couple and 2 children living in it would receive approximately £270 per week, plus rent and council tax[3].

According to government statistics, there are approximately 2,800,000 children living in poverty in the UK today. This is around 21% of all children. In the North East, there are approximately 132,000 children living in poverty and this equates to around 24%[4] of all children in the region.

Poverty means that children – and their parents – have to go without things that other families take for granted. For example nearly two-thirds of children who live in poverty cannot afford to go away on holiday (anywhere) with their family for a week and a quarter cannot afford to go swimming once a month. Parents – especially mums, often make sacrifices themselves to protect their children from the effects of poverty and around half of the adults in households in poverty cannot afford to replace worn out furniture, get electrical items repaired or have household insurance. A third of parents do not have enough for a hobby or leisure activity of their own.[5]

Around 55% of children living in poverty live in a household where at least one parent works.[6] This is because low paid jobs, such as those on the minimum wage or part time or temporary contracts, are often not enough to provide an income above the 60% level.


Child poverty can have devastating effects for children (not just in their childhood but in their adult life as well), their families and for society more generally.

  • Infants in the poorest families have an almost 10 times higher chance of dying suddenly in infancy than those in the highest income group.[7]
  • The impact on children’s lives of chronic illnesses, such as asthma and diabetes, seems to be greater among poor children. Acute illnesses are more likely to affect poor children and they are more likely to experience hospital admission.[8]
  • There is an ‘attainment gap’ between pupils who receive Free School Meals and those pupils that don’t receive FSM. 15% of boys receiving FSM did not get 5 GCSEs in 2010, whereas only 5% of boys that didn’t get FSM failed to get 5 GCSEs.[9]
  • Children who live in poverty are twice as likely to live in bad housing and this means that they are a third more likely to suffer respiratory problems such as chest problems, breathing difficulties, asthma and bronchitis than other children. Overcrowding and spells living in temporary accommodation are also factors that affect children growing up in poverty.[10]
  • There is a strong stigma attached to living in poverty and poor children are often bullied at school. Not wanting to appear poor means that a lot of children who are entitled to Free School Meals don’t actually take them and poor families will often go without other items to protect their children from this stigma[11]. This issue was covered in a BBC animated film called ‘The Wrong Trainers’[12]
  • Save the Children estimate that poorer families often have to pay a ‘poverty premium’ of around £1,280 per year for good and services[13]. This is because of different tariffs for gas and electricity suppliers, higher interest rates for loans and purchases and higher insurance premiums for living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
  • Only one in nine children from low income backgrounds will reach the top 25% of earners as adults[14]. The UK has very low ‘social mobility’ which is sometimes expressed as ‘poor children grow up to be poor adults’.
  • It is estimated that child poverty costs the UK approximately £25 billion per year, including around £17 billion that would go back to the government (through increased taxes and reduce benefits payments) if child poverty were eradicated[15].

[1] Poverty in the United Kingdom, Peter Townsend, 1979

[2] Households Below Average Income: An analysis of the income distribution 1994/95 – 2008/09, DWP, 2011

[3] Minimum Income Standards, Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Accessed at: http://www.jrf.org.uk/focus-issue/minimum-income-standards

[4] HMRC: The revised local child poverty measure. Accessible at: http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/stats/personal-tax-credits/child_poverty.htm

[5] Households Below Average Income: An analysis of the income distribution 1994/95 – 2008/09, DWP, 2011

[6] A New Approach to Child Poverty: Tackling the Causes of Disadvantage and Transforming Families’ Lives, DfE, 2011

[7] Health Consequences of Poverty for Children, End Child Poverty, 2008

[8] Ibid

[9] National Pupil Database. 2009/10

[10] Health Consequences of Poverty for Children, End Child Poverty, 2008

[11] Poor pupils prefer hunger to stigma of free meals, Times Educational Supplement, 2011. Accessed at: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6070031

[13] The UK Poverty Rip-Off: The Poverty Premium 2010, Save the Children, 2011

[14] Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility, Cabinet Office, 2011

[15] Estimating the costs of child poverty, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2008


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