Child Poverty can’t be the elephant in the room


13th March 2021

For me, one of the hardest things about writing a book was knowing how to finish it.

After briefly trying to convince myself ‘Young People on the Margins’ didn’t need a conclusion, I had to admit, the final chapter would be crucial.

The CfEY team had set out to write a book because we felt it was time to pull together the underlying themes that linked together all the projects we’d worked on, and to point to what should happen next.

Reflecting back to those motivations convinced me there was only one way to end the book: the concluding paragraph would have to be about poverty.

Young People on the Margins therefore closes with this graph which we use with the kind permission of the Child Poverty Action Group.

The elephant in the room

Almost every page of the ‘Young People on the Margins’ touches on child poverty. Yet although we wrote at length about poverty’s pernicious effects and how we have seen it shape young people’s lives, we didn’t write all that much about its underlying causes or the trends that lie behind it. That’s at least partly because I’m not an economist, an expert on welfare and employment, or someone who personally grew up in poverty.

Moreover, in most of the professional circles I’ve worked in, whether as a teacher, youth-worker or researcher and policy maker, I’ve more often found myself involved in conversations about how to mitigate the effects of child poverty than reflecting on the powerful grip of poverty itself  – and how we can, and should loosen it.

I tend to find myself involved in conversations about how to mitigate the effects of child poverty rather than the powerful grip of poverty itself - and how we can, and should loosen it. Share on X

That might sound like a big oversight, but ultimately, when you work with young people you can’t just wait for the system to solve the problems. Rather than treating poverty as destiny, you have to get on with doing the best you can for young people, regardless of their circumstances.

Fortunately, the Child Poverty Action Group has been fighting the good fight at system level since 1965, and just before Christmas, they pulled together a fascinating seminar to launch their 2020 Vision.

I therefore wanted to pull together an introduction to five key questions.

  1. What do we mean by child poverty?
  2. How does it affect children?
  3. How is child poverty changing?
  4. What can we do about it?
  5. Will anything be done?

This blog focuses on the first three of the questions and will be followed by an action-focused blog about the second two questions on Sunday.

What do we mean by child poverty?

There are different definitions of poverty and occasionally, debates flair up about whether a family’s situation ‘counts’ as being poor.

Sometimes people’s gripe is with lifestyle “But they’ve got a wide screen TV”, “But they’ve all got smartphones” etc. Laura McInerney has put a lot of these misconceptions to rest in her excellent “Things Rich People Don’t Understand”.

There’s another set of arguments about where the poverty line sits. In effect, poverty is ‘norm referenced’ – i.e. it is a distributional measure, unlike “destitution” which, might be thought of as ‘criterion referenced’ (based on whether people have what they need for their basic needs like heating, lighting and shelter.)

Even within the ‘norm referenced’ measure of the poverty there is an important distinction between relative and absolute poverty. Personally, I used to think ‘absolute poverty’ was synonymous with ‘destitution’ however confusingly, it is also a relative measure – but pegged to a specific year. i.e. 60 per cent of the median as it stood in 2011. Meanwhile, the ‘relative poverty’ definition moves around from year to year based on the Annual Households Below Average income (HBAI) survey, using a 60% cut off.

A further distinction is made between income before and after housing costs, and as we’ll see in tomorrow’s blog, this is a crucial consideration when seeking to turn the tide on child poverty and mend our broken system.

CPAG have some handy explainers about measuring poverty which you can find here

How does poverty affect children?

You don’t often get great causal evidence in the fields of policy and education/youth. But poverty is an exception. That’s because it’s relatively easy to trial cash transfers that diminish it, and as a result, we can say with a good deal of confidence that poverty is very bad for children.

“The experience of persistent economic hardship as well as very early poverty undermines cognitive functioning at 5 years of age… Persistent poverty is a crucial risk factor undermining children’s cognitive development – more so than family instability”

Schoon et al., 2012

“For children who are persistently in poverty throughout their early years, their cognitive development test scores at age 7 years are almost 20 percentile ranks lower than children who have never experienced poverty, even after controlling for a wide range of background characteristics and parental investment.”

Dickerson and Popli 2015

“The studies provide strong evidence that income has causal effects on a wide range of children’s outcomes, especially in households on low incomes to begin with. We conclude that reducing income poverty can be expected to have a significant impact on children’s environment and on their development”

Cooper and Stewart 2017

“Poverty affects a child’s development and educational outcomes beginning in the earliest years of life, both directly and indirectly through mediated, moderated, and transactional processes”

Engle and Black 2008

Maybe these conclusions sound obvious, but think how many times you’ve read articles arguing that it’s poor people’s lifestyle (divorce rate, television watching etc), lack of aspiration or downright laziness that scuppers their children’s prospects, rather than the fact that policies have been designed in ways that lock people into poverty and out of opportunity.

It’s this way of thinking that has allowed – or indeed encouraged governments to cut the support families can get. Again, we’ll see in tomorrow’s blog that those decisions have measurable and catastrophic consequences for who we allow to be poor.

We can say with a good deal of confidence that poverty is very bad for children Share on X


How is child poverty changing?

Given all the evidence about how bad poverty is for children, it just can’t be right that children are so dramatically over-represented amongst those living in poverty: 30 per cent of children live in households below the poverty line (after housing costs).  This is almost double the poverty rate (16 per cent) for pensioners according to CPAG.

Unfortunately, the situation is getting worse. Focusing on the most extreme form of poverty, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, half a million children are destitute (i.e. missing two of the basic necessities like having the clothing, food or toiletries they need). This is a 52% increase since 2017 which is equivalent to 185,000 children.

Given those numbers, it’s hardly any wonder that schools and other services are overwhelmed by the additional demands this places on them.


So what can we do about it?

Tomorrow’s blog will show that there are a number of practical steps that could be taken to protect children from poverty’s damaging effects.

Poverty campaigners are pushing hard for change and it’s time more of us who work with young people to acknowledged the elephant in the room: many of the issues that dominate debate – like workload, poor pupil well-being and squeezed budgets – can’t be considered in isolation from the policy choices that give rise to the needs we then battle to mitigate.

Find out about the four key lines of attack that would allow us to mend our system and tackle child poverty in part two of this series: “Child Poverty is not Inevitable”

CfEY’s new book “Young People on the Margins: Priorities for action in education and youth” will be published by Routledge later this month. Pre-order it here and get a 20% discount with the code “FLY21”

We need to acknowledge the elephant in the room: issues like workload, poor pupil well-being and squeezed budgets can’t be considered in isolation from the policy choices that give rise to the needs we battle to mitigate. Share on X