Almost All the Variation in Child Poverty Since 1997 is Concentrated in Larger Families

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy bt Kitty Stewart, Ruth Patrick and Aaron Reeves. Click here to access the article.

A child’s risk of poverty changes considerably depending on how many siblings they have. Until very recently this fact was largely neglected in UK poverty analysis, though there has been growing interest in family size in the wake of ‘welfare reforms’ that explicitly target larger families (the two-child limit) or disproportionately affect them (the benefit cap).  Our new paper puts these policies into longer term context, examining how trends in child poverty over the last 25 years have differed for children living in smaller (1-2 children) and larger (3+ children) families.

We find that almost all of the variation in child poverty in the UK since 1997 has been concentrated in larger families: this is true both of the rapid reductions in the 2000s and the sharp increase in child poverty since 2012. Our paper reaffirms the importance of looking at child poverty through the lens of family size, but it has broader implications too.

First, our analysis highlights the central importance of the social security system in supporting household income during the period when a family has dependent children at home. Indeed, we show that changes in poverty over this period have been overwhelmingly driven by changes in social security benefits. Labour’s child tax credit programme made a significant positive difference, especially to larger families and to lone parents. Conversely, the rolling back of benefit support through the cash freeze on working-age benefits led poverty to rise, hitting larger families hardest. The two-child limit and the benefit cap will exacerbate this effect. 

Second, overall poverty trends have surprisingly little to do with changes in employment. For some, this might be surprising; it certainly runs against the ever-present mantra, used across the political spectrum, that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’. And there is something of a paradox here. Paid work may be effective at raising incomes for an individual household, but at a national level the focus on work as the central plank in anti-poverty strategy has failed miserably. Parental employment has risen steadily through this period, as have parental education levels. And yet rates of pre-tax and transfer poverty have also risen, leaving more, not less, for the social security system to do. Among smaller families, increases in employment have been fully offset by the rising risk of poverty pre-tax and transfers for families in work. For larger families, many more of whom work at less than full intensity, increases in employment have been more than offset by the rising risk of pre-transfer poverty within work – meaning redistributive transfers have to work ever harder just to keep the poverty rate stable. 

Third, our study provides an excellent example of how policy that bears no overt relation to ethnicity can shape (and in this case deepen) ethnic inequalities. We find that poverty trends are only minimally explained by demographic change, including changes in the composition of children by ethnicity. But larger families are much more common among some ethnic and religious groups than others; Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black families are considerably more likely to have three or more children than White families, while Indian and Chinese families are less likely. Policy that allows and accepts a rise in poverty in larger families is therefore not neutral in terms of the groups in society that it affects. Given what we know about the impact of poverty on children’s development and attainment, the rise in larger family poverty has worrying implications for future inequalities along multiple lines, including ethnicity.

When presenting this analysis, a standard response has been a focus on the greater barriers to employment faced by larger families, and how to reduce these and make paid work easier. Surely more affordable and accessible childcare is the answer, along with more flexibility in patterns of work? 

Well, yes and no. There is no question about the importance to parents of affordable childcare and flexible work, and in the UK there is considerable room for improvement here. Making it easier for families to choose the balance of work and care that suits them at each stage is potentially good for gender inequality, good for parental mental health and ensures that skills and human capital are not wasted but benefit society. Higher rates of employment also generate more tax revenue for benefits and services. 

However, an exclusive and narrow focus on paid work is misguided. For one thing, wages do not adjust to family size, as recognised by Eleanor Rathbone in her original case for family allowances. Additional child benefits are therefore vital, even for many working families, to support family needs during this phase of life. To tackle in-work poverty, the quality of work and the extent of wage inequalities are clearly important too. But more than this, there will always be some families, at some stages, for whom full-time paid work – and sometimes any paid work – is simply not possible or appropriate to family needs. Our qualitative longitudinal research as part of this same project, talking to families affected by the two-child limit or the benefit cap, has underlined the multiple and complex barriers to employment some families face. These include having several very young children; having children or other household members with disabilities or additional needs; parents’ own disability or mental ill-health; wider caring responsibilities; and for some families traumatic recent events that mean they want to focus in the short term on emotional well-being. 

It is an essential role of a social security system to be there for these periods when work is not possible and care must take priority. It is the only way in which poverty can be effectively eradicated. 

Political and public discourse in recent years have routinely stigmatised larger families as financially dependent on the state. Our argument is that families with three or more dependent children are indeed in need of greater financial support than smaller families, but this is often for a brief and intensive period when their children are young. It is the framing of the state’s role and the conceptualisation of what counts as ‘work’ that shapes whether this is perceived and presented as a problem. Indeed, if ideas of contribution are widened to encompass reproductive and caring work, then adults in larger families are potentially making the greatest contribution of all. Taking this as our starting point would help us to shape policies that not only tackle poverty more effectively, but that do so in a way that fosters mutual dignity and respect.     

About the authors

Kitty Stewart is Associate Professor at the London School of Economics.

Ruth Patrick is Senior Lecturer at the University of York.

Aaron Reeves is Professor at the University of Oxford.


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