Tackling the big questions on child poverty: how do families end up in poverty?

Tackling the big questions on child poverty: how do families end up in poverty?

12th November 2020

With increasing awareness around child food poverty and the recent announcement by the Government to fund holiday provision throughout 2021, there were a lot of questions and myths around child food poverty raised. This blog series will tackle some of those, while also explaining why TLG’s Box of Hope campaign is still so important this winter.

Firstly, how do people end up in poverty and why can’t they just ‘work’ their way out of it?

In discussions around child food poverty and holiday provision, there are common questions that crop up time and time again: is it not the parents’ responsibility? How can anyone not afford to feed their children when you can buy reduced food at the supermarket? Why should schools be acting as welfare charities? How can anyone get themselves into that position? Why don’t they just get a job?

It is important we address these questions, rather than gloss over them, if we are to continue to raise awareness around the issue of child food poverty and affect UK-wide lasting change.

Poverty is not simple. Falling into poverty is often multi-complex, multi-causal and multi-faceted. Unless something were to suddenly happen to change circumstances, getting out of poverty is therefore incredibly challenging.

We live in a society where even people who are currently able to afford the necessities are managing from day to day and any sudden change – often outside of their control – would plunge them below the breadline. One in three UK families are only one missed paycheque from homelessness (Shelter, 2016) and nearly a quarter of adults having no savings to fall back on (Nationwide, 2019). There are many of us who would not have a ‘Plan B’ if our circumstances suddenly flipped.

It doesn’t always take a global pandemic for a person’s circumstances to dramatically change either. Many families who fall into severe financial insecurity had their lives overturned by events such as bereavement, family breakdown, unknown debt amounted by a partner, injury, mental or physical illness or redundancy.

Case study: L’s husband had to give up working, leaving them on really strict funds until he was able to be back up and about. L was pregnant at the time and burdened with anxiety, not knowing how they could provide for their growing family when they could barely afford the necessities from week to week.

On top of what was already happening, COVID-19 has impacted many families from across the income spectrum. Families who were already struggling have fallen even further below the poverty line. People who were otherwise managing are now facing severe financial insecurity. A huge variety of jobs have been dramatically affected by the first lockdown and again by the second, never properly recovering in the brief period where restrictions were lifted. Industries have had eight months of affected income, meaning staff have been working fewer hours or had to be furloughed or made redundant.

Case study: J said: ‘The boys know about their dad losing his job and our oldest does worry about money. We have always stood on our own two feet and not asked/needed any help until now. I have hope that everything will work out, it’s just a hard time with people losing their jobs and not many companies currently hiring.’

For context as to how many people just one aspect of this is affecting, the unemployment rate (for July-September) rose 0.7%. That might feel like a small percentage but that percentage means that now a total of 1.62 million people in the UK are now unemployed and facing huge anxiety and uncertainty around what the future may hold. This is projected to continue to increase into next year. There were also 2.4 million starts to Universal Credit between 13 March 2020 and 14 May 2020, the initial stages of lockdown (Department of Work and Pensions), showing the number of families who lost their regular employment income due to the impact of COVID during the first lockdown. This will continue to increase during the second. 

Case study: C and M, parents to three children, were both made redundant during the initial stages of the crisis. M then attempted to set up his own business to bring in money but, with the prolonged crisis, work was hard to find and this too did not bring in enough income to support the family. Despite this family’s huge efforts to find work, it just wasn’t happening. Their income stopped almost overnight.

The number of people experiencing in-work poverty also continues to rise, hitting record levels before the COVID-19 pandemic (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2020) and we can expect this will have risen even further throughout the pandemic. The same report by the JRF also found that 7 in 10 children living in poverty are in a working family, with single-parent families particularly affected – parents who are going out and trying to earn an income to provide for their children, yet it is still not enough.

For all families looking for work, childcare also needs to be arranged first. Between 2008 and 2018, childcare costs rose three times faster than wages (TUC, 2018) meaning that families are increasingly left with staggering costs in order to go to work. For a parent in a low-income job, this can make the difference between employment being more profitable or less profitable. Childcare and housing are reported to be two of the costs that take the biggest toll on families’ budgets (CPAG, 2020). This was exacerbated further when informal childcare was initially not allowed under the COVID-19 restrictions (this was changed in September), meaning parents who had previously been helped by family and friends were forced to rely on either paying for formal childcare or cutting their hours at work to stay at home with their children. 

Case study: K, a single mum of three young children, had worked hard to achieve qualifications so she could find work to provide for her children. However, when COVID-19 hit and childcare options vanished, she had no choice but to stay at home and care for her children, leaving her reliant on Universal Credit.

Housing is not the only issue that can be more complicated for families living in poverty. Unfortunately, a variety of systems are stacked against them as they try to lift themselves out of poverty. Cheaper accommodation often is fitted with a pre-payment meter and for families with inconsistent income (such as those on zero hour contracts) a pre-payment meter may be the only option. Pre-payment meter users often end up paying more than direct debit users and do not usually have the same low tariffs available to them (Christians Against Poverty, 2015). Similarly, low-income families are often reliant on public transport to move around which is expensive and may limit how far they can travel – for example they may have to shop locally at the nearest supermarket rather than venturing further to find the cheapest.

This blog has gone some way to explain that, while the vast majority of parents are trying their very best to provide for their children, often circumstances beyond their control (the same unexpected circumstances that could hit any of us at any point) spin their lives below the poverty line. These families urgently need support to help them in their moment of crisis, especially to ensure that their children never go hungry. This is why the recent package of support, including holiday provision and increased Healthy Start payments, will make a big difference to these families. TLG will continue to call for continued support measures, including for the £20 increase in Universal Credit to be made permanent and expanded to include all Legacy benefits (for example JSA and ESA).

As we know first-hand that the need is so great and so complex, we will also continue to support families, alongside recent commitments from the Government, throughout the winter period. Local churches partnering with TLG are able to help families through our programmes, including our Box of Hope campaign which is providing emergency food and welfare packages to families across the UK. To find out more about our Box of Hope campaign, including how you can play your part, click here.

Our next blog in this series will explore more specific questions around child food poverty, including whose responsibility is it? Click here to read it.

Recommended further reading:


Beth Prescott

Beth Prescott

Before coming to TLG, Beth worked as a Fundraising Project Manager for poverty-relief charity Christians Against Poverty. Beth also has expansive experience in the political sector. Beth is a season ticket holder at Huddersfield Town and enjoys hiking through the Yorkshire countryside followed by a local ale in the pub.

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