Child poverty in the UK: learning from international experience

Published on 3 March 2021

Keetie Roelen

IDS Honorary Associate

How should child poverty in the UK be defined? And how should it be measured?

These are questions being considered by the UK Parliament’s cross-party Work and Pensions Committee in their inquiry ‘Children in poverty: Measurement and targets’. Over the course of the next few weeks, the committee is taking evidence from representatives of anti-poverty organisations, researchers and other witnesses to reflect on current practice regarding monitoring child poverty in the UK. As part of its first oral evidence session, I was asked to give evidence in relation to international practice of measuring child poverty.

So how is child poverty currently monitored in the UK?

In the past decade, the UK considerably changed its approach to measuring child poverty. In 2010, under the terms of the Child Poverty Act, the government enshrined four measures and accompanying targets in law, obligating the government to meet those targets by 2020. However, in 2016 – following the 2015 election – the government changed course. Instead of looking at whether children were living in families with adequate income or other types of material deprivation, the focus shifted to monitoring whether parents were in work or children were in school. Income poverty as a measure of child poverty was abandoned.

It is encouraging that the Work and Pensions Committee with Members of Parliament from across the Conservative, Labour and SNP parties are now revisiting this course of action, and that they want to learn from international experience.

Current UK practice of zooming in on whether parents work or not and whether children are in school as a measure of child poverty is out of step with international practice.

Building on lessons from other countries, here are three important issues to keep in mind:

First, child poverty is multi-faceted. It means living in a family without adequate income as well as being deprived in other areas such as living standards, education, food, health. While a lack of income is strongly related to lack of material and other social resources, there are also considerable groups of children who experience deprivation even though they live in families with income above the poverty line. Looking at lack of family income and other types of deprivations for children directly in conjunction with each other is vital to get a full picture of child poverty.

Second, it is essential to distinguish between a measure of child poverty in terms of the outcomes that we want to see, and indicators that may explain changes in this measure. Considering potential causes of poverty, such as worklessness of caregivers or indebtedness, as markers of poverty and using them as indicators thereof conflates different types of information. Doing so undermines the ability to track outcomes and analyse what makes a difference to those outcomes.

Third, summary statistics and so-called dashboard approaches need to be used alongside each other. Aggregating all numbers into a single index hides differences across types of deprivation, and improvements in the overall index may be a result of affecting positive change in domains that are ‘low-hanging’ fruits. Keeping an eye on changes across types of deprivations is crucial to keep track of progress in all areas that important for children’s lives. At the same time, the use of an aggregated statistic that provides an overview of the situation of child poverty and allows for simple comparisons across groups and over time can be an important tool for monitoring and keeping government to account.

There are a lot of experiences from countries around the world that the UK could learn from in relation to these points, and to reflect on their own practice of measuring child poverty.

International examples

Mexico, for example, was one of the first countries to adopt a multidimensional poverty index and using income and multidimensional poverty measures alongside each other. They identify who is poor based on lack of income and based on social deprivation such as lack of access to health services, social security, and food.

New Zealand is a best practice example when it comes to measuring child poverty and setting targets towards reducing it. The country focuses on four primary measures of poverty and hardship, including low income before housing costs and after housing costs, material hardship and poverty persistence. New Zealand’s Child Poverty Reduction Act 2018 requires the government set targets on these child poverty measures and to report on these annually.

Further oral evidence sessions will be held by the Committee in the coming months to inform this inquiry. A call for written evidence is open until 5 March.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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