Childhood poverty in the UK: a tricky issue

Date: 02/07/2019 Written by: Daisy 15 minutes to read.

Childhood poverty in the UK has been hitting the headlines again. But, this isn't the first time and it is certainly not a new talking point. Childhood poverty is regularly raised by key people and organisations working across the UK. So, why does it keep making headlines? In this blog we explore what the current state is, and why this issue is apparently so hard to address. 

'Childhood poverty'. Say that phrase out loud and the first place you think of is most likely far away, perhaps children in countries facing war or environmental disasters, rather than right here in the UK. Surely in the UK, says the rational part of your brain, in a developed country with an established market economy, childhood poverty isn't an issue? Or if it is, then only for the few - it's certainly not the 'norm'. Indeed, it seems that even the very people we entrust with understanding the distribution of wealth in the UK (politicians) are in denial. This month, Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer, has been accused of dismissing a UN report on poverty in the UK. 

What do we mean by 'childhood poverty'?

What exactly does 'living in poverty' mean and what does it look like for families and children across the UK? 

There are two main classifications of poverty applicable to the UK: relative poverty and absolute poverty. Relative poverty is defined as a household with an income below 60% of the median (middle) income of £507 a week in 2017 - 2018, while absolute poverty is defined as a household with an income below the median income for 2010 - 2011, adjusted for inflation. 

What is the scale of the issue?

The latest figures tell us that the number of children living in absolute poverty increased by 200,000 in 2017 - 2018 bringing the total to 4.1 million children in the UK currently living in relative poverty. That means that just under a third of children in the UK are living in poverty.   

The media regularly highlights reports from organisations and charities dedicated to tackling social inequality that show the worrying rise in the scale of childhood poverty. The evocative headlines call on us to sit up and take notice - that this is just the tip of the iceberg, with headlines such as: "British children are living in poverty 'could hit record high".   

Why does it matter? 

Studies going back over a number of years continue to show that growing up in poverty has an all too often negative impact on a person's quality of life. Children growing up in poor households often have lower levels of educational attainment, physical health and mental health than those growing up in households above the poverty threshold.   

In addition, childhood poverty affects the rest of a person's later life, perpetuating poverty into later life, social deprivation, isolation and ultimately lower life expectancies

Why it is so difficult to engage change with the issue? 

With all of these adverse impacts and effects of childhood poverty on individuals and society as a whole, why, then, is it so difficult for us to accept the issue or recognise the true extent of the problem? With the issue continually highlighted through research and reports, why is society seemingly in denial?

One reason could well be that the issue of 'childhood poverty' is a little abstract. After all, how do you visualise 'poverty'? What does it actually mean to people that they can relate to or identify with? 

An example of another issue that is also increasingly affecting children that is perhaps more instantly 'understandable' is obesity. Think about 'obesity' and you can visualise some of the likely causes - junk food and watching TV rather than playing outside - and what it means on an individual level - perhaps being unable to run far without getting out of breath or eating too many foods and drinks that contain high levels of fat and sugar. 

One of the (arguably) main causes of poverty is not having enough money to cover necessary expenditure. But how can your brain visualise that quickly?! And how can you think about what it means on an individual level? Not enough money for breakfast at home before school or not being able to get new shoes when needed? It is harder to think about an absence of something (money, breakfast or shoes) than it is to think about something in abundance (too much junk food and watching too much television). This can make it difficult for people to understand and fully engage with 'childhood poverty' without taking time to really visualise and understand what it means. 


In today's busy, on-the-go culture, taking the time to stop and really think about an issue we've seen in the media isn't always possible. A key means to help overcome this 'challenge' in engaging people with the issue of childhood poverty would be to explore ways to make the issue less abstract and more tangible - such as the use of infographics, case studies and compare and contrast a 'day in the life' of poverty vs. not poverty. Recent work has begun to focus on making the issue more tangible - through highlighting what it often means to an individual (missing out on a school meal if their family have to pay for it) and how this can be overcome (extending free school meals to all children living in poverty)

This issue isn't going anywhere and the sooner we can move towards recognition and action, the sooner we can change it for the better. Let's start now. 

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