Child poverty and perceptions: a response

This is a guest post by Lizzie Flew – who works for the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) – in response to Elizabeth Clery’s blog post here.

In a blog for Inequalities, Elizabeth Clery argues that trends in poverty have remained stable while public perceptions that there is ‘quite a lot’ of poverty (as measured by the British Social Attitudes Survey) have risen.

But when it comes to child poverty, trends have not remained stable. Concerted government action in the 2000s brought child poverty down significantly, and in 2010 there was cross-party support for action to end child poverty by 2020. Tragically, in recent years child poverty has been rising, and so it’s no surprise to us that perceptions of poverty have also been rising.

Trends in relative poverty among children

At CPAG we believe all poverty indicators have a place, but that relative poverty is vital to understanding how low-income families are faring in relation to everyone else now. If a society is generally getting better off, comparing incomes to an anchored point in the past (2010-11) doesn’t tell us how well off people are relative to others now. Between 2012-13 and 2015-16, relative child poverty went from 27% to 30% (after housing costs).

The above graph shows that relative poverty both before and after housing costs has been rising. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) projects yet more rises in the near future. The IFS also projects that absolute child poverty – which we would always expect to fall as living standards generally rise – will go up, and indeed we saw an increase of 200,000 children living in absolute poverty between 2016-17 and 2017-18 (see HBAI table 4_1tr).

We also learnt in the latest government statistics (HBAI tables 4_7db_AHC and 4­8db_AHC) that material deprivation is on the rise (there are items people need, but can’t afford). This is perhaps not surprising given that we are now seeing child poverty deepen (HBAI table 4_3tr) – there are 600,000 more children in severe poverty (in families on less than 50% of the median income) than five years ago.

Poverty is about more than basic needs, it’s about people being able to participate in society. Arguably rising food bank use has contributed to rising perceptions of poverty, but poverty is solved by ensuring families have adequate incomes not by meeting immediate, basic needs through charity.

Support provided to families through our social security system has fallen – the benefit freeze in particular has left a low-income family with two children almost £2,800 a year worse off than in 2010 (see p12 of this). Add the benefit cap, two-child limit and other cuts, and it’s clear that these changes are being felt by families and noticed by the public more widely.

Rising perceptions could also be attributable in part to interventions from children’s doctors. Poverty has been reported as a major contributor to ill health in children, and research we conducted with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health found that almost half of the paediatricians we surveyed felt things were getting worse for their low-income patients, pointing to increasing poverty, housing problems and cuts to services.

Public attitudes and poverty trends

The British Social Attitudes survey is a vital resource, showing us how the public thinks over time. It may be that the increasing public perception that there is ‘quite a lot’ of poverty is being driven by rising child poverty. As a country that believes in justice and compassion, it’s right that all children should have the best start in life and a decent standard of living. The government must listen to the facts, and to increasing public concern, and address the reality of child poverty today. If child poverty starts to reduce, then maybe public perceptions will follow.










About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where (after a long break) I am again blogging about inequality-related policy & research. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on the role of social science, disability, inequality, deservingness, and the future of the benefits system, and I co-lead the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project (on the benefits system during Covid-19). You can find out more about me at
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