Why finding love isn’t the surest way to prevent family poverty

It’s true that working couples with children are less likely to be in poverty. But that does not mean finding a partner is the surest way to prevent poverty, says Chris Goulden.

In an article for The Telegraph today, the chair of the work and pensions select committee Frank Field rightly points out that among families in poverty, there are relatively few couples where one parent works full-time and the other works part-time. He suggests schools should encourage children to find a partner when they are older if they are to have a family and prevent poverty. As a remedy, he says child benefit should be drawn down and be used to help families while their children are young.

Looking at the figures, 6% of families in poverty have someone working full-time and one partner working part-time, which equates to just over 100,000 children out of the 2.3m in relative income poverty. However, there are some things that Field neglects to mention about the other families in poverty - how they compare to the situation of children overall in the UK and what the solutions to this might be. There are also areas where he arguably underplays the extent of the problem.

What he doesn’t mention is the 3% of couple families in poverty who are already working all the hours available to them. And there is also the not insignificant 16% of children in poverty (350,000) living with two parents who are mainly self-employed. Whilst the most common pattern among all families is indeed the full-time plus part-time couple, four in five families overall are not of this type. It’s hard to argue that this is therefore a norm – although it’s true that this probably ought to be the goal for couples to avoid poverty, given the need to find solutions that balance paid employment, care for children and support from the state.

Furthermore, families in poverty are not the same as other families – they are more likely to have younger children, which affects their ability to work fully (either as couples or lone parents); so in part the causation is the other way around. Having young children is more likely to push families into poverty because they can’t work enough hours and where benefits are too low to top up their incomes above the poverty line.

So the argument that benefits should focus more on preventing poverty when children are young has some merit, but this is where looking at family type and welfare alone takes us only so far. Families living in poverty differ on other characteristics too: they are more likely to have low skills and qualifications and live in areas where worse labour markets hamper access to well-paid, secure work.

We know that government and business working together to foster more and better jobs, decent back-to-work support and training and the provision of affordable, quality childcare can lay the foundations for families to earn enough to prevent poverty. This would give parents the tools to choose the best way out of poverty for themselves and their children.