Ending child poverty is urgent, and it is possible

Posted in: Culture and policy, Economics, Health, Housing, Public services, UK politics, Welfare and social security, Young people

Jane Millar, OBE, FBA, FAcSS is Professor Emerita in the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath. Her research interests include the design, implementation and impact of family policy, social security and employment policy. She is chair of the Trustees of Child Poverty Action Group. Kitty Stewart is Associate Professor of Social Policy at the LSE and Associate Director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE). Her research focuses primarily on the causes and consequences of child poverty and disadvantage and on social policy as it affects children, particularly in the early years. She is a Trustee of the Child Poverty Action Group.

This article is part of a blog series published in partnership with Academics Stand Against Poverty UK, as they develop their third manifesto audit in the build up to the 2024 election. They will analyse the policies in the manifestos in relation to poverty to asses how confident they are that they will enable British society to flourish. It was originally published on the Transforming Society Blog on 10 May 2024.


There are 4.3 million children in the UK living in poor households – almost one in three children. Poverty blights their childhood – their health, their education, their present and future options. It costs the country over £39 billion a year in lost tax revenues and the costs of social provision.

Parents need support to provide for their children with security and without constant worry. Imagine the UK without any child poverty – a country with all children well fed and housed, feeling secure, and growing up healthy and confident.

Child Poverty Action Group is asking all the political parties to include a manifesto commitment for action to end child poverty.  This needs to start with a vision of a society free from child poverty, where all children can thrive. The vision should be made concrete in the form of a child poverty strategy for action across all levels of government, with key targets, timelines and regular reporting.

CPAG has long made the case for such a comprehensive strategy to “take a wide, coordinated and long-term approach… based on the best interests of the child… to take into account children’s rights… to focus on children at risk… to balance universal and targeted support….”.

A child poverty strategy must start with some immediate action. Our social security system is riddled with policies that have increased the risk, level and depth of child poverty. We must get rid of the most damaging policies as soon as possible.

  • Abolish the benefit cap: This restricts the total amount of support non-working or low-earning families can receive in benefits. About 78,000 households with children are affected, many pushed into very deep poverty. It especially affects lone parents, large families, and families with young children.
  • Abolish the two-child limit: The two-child limit restricts support in universal credit and tax credits to two children in a family, for children born since 2017. About 1.5 million children live in affected families, with the number growing all the time. The two-child limit is one of the main drivers of rising child poverty.
  • Set a lower limit to deductions from Universal Credit: Automatic deductions from Universal Credit are wide-ranging and can mean significant reductions in weekly income. About 2.3 million children live in households with some deductions.
  • Remove the five-week wait at the start of a claim for Universal Credit: A claim for Universal Credit involves a wait of at least five weeks for the first regular payment. Many families experience hardship, anxiety and debt as a result. Advance loans are available but must be paid back, reducing future income.
  • Review the support for housing costs in Universal Credit: Housing is a major element in the budgets of poor families. But the current system does not always cover full housing costs. Increasing the local housing allowance annually in line with local rents would help families meet their actual housing costs.
  • Review support for children in migrant families: Visa conditions restrict access to most benefits, including Universal Credit and Child Benefit. This can push children in these families into deep poverty.

Abolishing damaging and divisive policies is important, but we must do much more.

  • Increase Child Benefit and make it universal again: Child Benefit used to be universal, in recognition that all families with children face increased costs. Now some families are excluded by the High Income Child Benefit Charge, undermining the universal principle. In addition, Child Benefit has lost 20 per cent of its value since 2010. Child Benefit should be increased by at least £20 per child a week and once more paid for all children.
  • Universal free school meals: Free school meals are provided to children across the UK but with different rules and means tests. This can mean children in poverty missing out. Free school meals support children in their learning, health and wellbeing. A universal system would benefit all children but particularly the poorest.
  • Ensure benefits for children are adequate and regularly uprated: Benefit freezes and below-inflation uprating have meant families with children losing out substantially over the past decade. This has significantly contributed to the rise in child poverty. Benefits for families need to be increased to provide an adequate standard of living and uprated annually by prices or earnings, whichever is higher.
  • Support childcare costs: Childcare helps parents to manage work and care, and high-quality early education and care enhances child development and wellbeing. The current system is complex for parents to negotiate and does not cover costs. We need to reduce costs and improve quality by moving towards a universal, publicly funded system.
  • Increase the flow of Child Maintenance payments to lone parents: Child Maintenance can be an important source of income for lone-parent families and help to reduce their poverty. The Child Maintenance Service should be reformed to make the reduction of child poverty the main objective.
  • Keep raising the minimum wage: Low wages and job insecurity are important factors driving family poverty. Single-earner families, lone parents and couples struggle to escape poverty through their own earnings. Higher minimum wages would increase family income and reduce reliance on means-tested benefits.

Is this too much to ask in the context of the challenges that will be facing the next government after the election? Maybe so, but the situation for children growing up in poverty is currently so dire that it cannot be ignored.

If pushed, we propose that the priorities should be to increase Child Benefit, to introduce universal free school meals, and to abolish both the two-child limit and the benefit cap. This package would take one million children out of poverty, reduce the depth of poverty for millions more, while increasing the economic security of all families across the country. The cost would be less than £20 billion per year. For such a significant step, this seems a small price to pay.

This article is based on the Child Poverty Action Group publication, Ending Child Poverty: why and how

Read all the articles in the Academics Stand Against Poverty blog series here.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: Culture and policy, Economics, Health, Housing, Public services, UK politics, Welfare and social security, Young people


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