“Heart-breaking and wrong” that a million children under 4 growing up in poverty
- 13.4 million people were in poverty during 2020/21, including 3.9 million children;
- 1.3m primary school children and 1m children who are under 4 were growing up in poverty even with additional support, and as a result are now experiencing the sharp end of the hardship caused by the cost of living crisis;
- One in six (18%) children were living in persistent poverty (spending at least 3 out of the last 4 years in poverty). For young children that is nearly their whole life;
- Almost 40% of children in a lone parent family are in poverty;
- The pandemic highlighted huge health inequalities, with a strong overlap between poverty rates and where you live, your ethnicity and your health outcomes;
- The £20 uplift in Universal Credit took some families out of poverty, proving that government action can make things better. But this help was taken away as the cost of living rose, and many are now unable to afford the essentials such as food, hygiene and warmth.
Almost 3 in 10 children in families, where the youngest child is aged under five (28%) or primary school age between 5 and 10 years (29%), have experienced poverty and many will continue to experience hardship during the cost of living crisis.
The findings come from the annual poverty report published today (26 January) by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) which uses the latest available government data which covered the first year of the pandemic.
The Government showed it could make a meaningful difference to the numbers experiencing poverty during the pandemic when it introduced the temporary £20 a week increase to Universal Credit and Working tax credit. However the period of respite was brief, with the Government taking away this help just as the cost of living crisis began, with benefits instead rising by only 3.1% - a fraction of the inflation many families are experiencing.
Families in poverty
During the period of respite, 400,000 additional children were able to live in a family that is not in poverty, making clear how putting money into households can make a real difference to the lives of children. It continues to be the case that families with three or more children have high poverty rates with almost four in ten people in these families being in poverty.
Poverty and health
The pandemic also highlighted profound health inequalities, a situation which is likely to be placing an additional strain on health and public services. Since 2011, the life expectancy for those living in the most deprived areas of England has never been lower. In 2018-20, women were expected to live, on average, for 9 fewer months and men for 4 fewer months than they had been in 2011/13. In England and Scotland, the death rate from COVID-19 in the most deprived areas was more than twice that of the least deprived areas.
On average, a woman living in the 10% most deprived areas of England will spend just 71% of their life in good health, compared to 85% for a woman living in the 10% least deprived areas. Given the shorter life expectancy of women from deprived areas, this equates to 18 years less of life lived in good health, adding pressure to health services at a time of strain. For a man, this gap is 19 years; a man born in the most deprived areas will live in good health for just 66% of their life compared to 82% for those in the least deprived area.
Poverty and race
There was a strong overlap between poverty and ethnicity going into the pandemic, and after it. Around half of all people in households headed by someone of Bangladeshi ethnicity were in poverty. People in households headed by someone of Pakistani or Black ethnicity also have very high poverty rates of more than 4 in 10, over twice the rate of people in households headed by someone of white ethnicity. The poverty rate for Pakistani people in the UK is 2.3 times that of white people.
Cost of living
Around 7.2 million people have been going without basics such as meals, showers and heating, and 4.7 million getting behind on their bills, according to JRF research this winter. The difficulties being faced by many as a result of the cost of living crisis have coincided with the withdrawal of the £20 uplift being offered to some families through the social security system.
April 2022 saw the greatest fall in the value of the basic rate of unemployment benefits since 1972 – and the period since has seen low-income households’ finances continue to buckle under the pressure of the cost of living crisis.
Peter Matejic, Chief Analyst at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said:
“This winter we have seen two crises collide – the cost of living is forcing families to cut back on essentials and our health service is being overwhelmed by demand. Leaving people to go hungry, skip showers or live in cold homes risks further profound and long term consequences – not just for individuals’ health but for the state’s capacity to deliver what all of us as citizens should be able to expect.
“It was heart-breaking and wrong that your family characteristics and race had such a huge impact on your level of risk during the pandemic – and it is also wrong to see such a strong and continuing overlap with poverty rates.
“But governments are far from helpless and none of this is inevitable. The £20 uplift was the right political choice which clearly made a huge difference during the pandemic and may have prevented what were tremendously difficult years becoming a complete disaster for families around the UK.
“The relief provided by this measure, taken away just as the cost of living crisis hit, also demonstrated that the standard rates of social security are fundamentally not fit for purpose, with millions now going without essentials such as food, heating and cleanliness.
“These problems can be solved, but it takes the political will and imagination to tackle multiple injustices at once - and all of us need a government and an economy that works for us when times are hard.”
Who is in poverty?
Poverty for families in receipt of benefits remained very high, at 46% in 2020/21. However not all low-income households are eligible for benefits, and some of these households need support too. Over half (56%) of working-age households in the bottom fifth of incomes not on means tested benefits are currently in arrears with at least one household bill, and over two thirds (71%) are going without at least one type of essential or experiencing food insecurity.
Of those in poverty during 2020/21:
- 7.9 million were working-age adults;
- 3.9 million were children (one in four children in the UK)
- Four in ten children in lone parent families lived in poverty
- 1.7 million were pensioners
A falling average income caused the relative poverty line to fall, at the same time as a range of temporary coronavirus-related support was introduced, including a £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits. While this is likely to mean that fewer people are in relative poverty, it does not necessarily mean that their ability to stay afloat during the cost of living crisis has increased.