The House of Lords is due to consider the following question for short debate on 29 April 2024:

Lord Bird (Crossbench) to ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to address the root causes of child poverty across the United Kingdom.

1.   How many children live in poverty?

1.1 Definitions and recent statistics

There is no single, universally accepted definition of poverty.[1] However, in general the term refers to when people lack the material resources to meet minimum needs.[2]

The UK government publishes two key measures of poverty based on disposable income, broken down further on a before housing costs (BHC) and after housing costs (AHC) basis:[3]

  • Relative low income refers to people living in households with income below 60% of the median in a given year.
  • Absolute low income refers to people living in households with income below 60% of median income in a base year, usually 2010/11, adjusted for inflation. This is the government’s preferred measure as “relative poverty can […] provide counterintuitive results, as it is likely to fall during recessions due to falling median incomes”.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) publishes estimates for the number of children living in low-income households each year using these measures. It published its most recent ‘Households below average income’ release on 21 March 2024.[4] The estimates within the release were compiled using data from the annual family resources survey for 2022/23.

The release noted that “compared to the overall population, children are more likely to live in low-income households”. It also said:

Relative low income

  • Between FYE (financial year ending) 2022 and FYE 2023, relative low income BHC for children increased by 2 percentage points to 22%. The relative AHC measure also increased by 1 percentage point to 30%.
  • The AHC measure remains below the last set of estimates published prior to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, for FYE 2020. There was a general upward trend in both measures in the decade prior to the pandemic.
  • Neither change in the measures was statistically significant.

Absolute low income

  • Both measures of the percentage of children in absolute low income have increased for the first time since FYE 2018. The increase BHC was 3 percentage points to 18%, and AHC increased by 2 percentage points to 25% compared to FYE 2022.
  • Both measures have followed a downward trend since they were introduced.

The following table shows the estimated number and percentage of children living in low-income households in 2022/23.

Table 1: Number and percentage of children in relative and absolute low-income households, 2022/23

  Relative low income Absolute low income
Number (millions) Percent Number (millions) Percent
Before housing costs 3.2 22 2.6 18
After housing costs 4.3 30 3.6 25

(Department for Work and Pensions, ‘Households below average income 2022/23: The income distribution summary tables’, 21 March 2024, tables 1.4a and 1.4b)

The Office for National Statistics is due to publish separate income survey data later in 2024.[5]

1.2 Selected stakeholder comment

In a press release issued following the DWP release, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) said the estimates represented a “record high” for child poverty in the UK.[6] The group said the release showed that “100,000 more children were pulled into relative poverty (after housing costs)” when compared with a year earlier. It added that this meant “4.3 million children (30% of all UK children) were in poverty” in 2022/23, “up from 3.6 million in 2010/11”. The group’s press release continued:

  • 69% of poor children lived in working families
  • 46% of children in families with three or more children were in poverty, up from 36% in 2011/12
  • poor families have fallen deeper into poverty: 2.9 million children were in deep poverty (ie with a household income below 50% of after-housing-costs equivalised median income), 600,000 more than in 2010/11
  • 36% of all children in poverty were in families with a youngest child aged under five
  • 47% of children in Asian and British Asian families were in poverty, 51% of children in Black/African/Caribbean and Black British families, and 24% of children in white families
  • 44% of children in lone parent families were in poverty
  • 34% of children living in families where someone has a disability were in poverty

Writing for the Resolution Foundation, economists Adam Corlett and Lalitha Try reflected on what the estimates meant for the long-term goal of eliminating poverty, including child poverty:

The share of people living in absolute poverty (after housing costs) rose from 17% to 18% in 2022/23: a rise of 600,000 people. This may not seem like such a big jump, but absolute poverty usually falls—given that real incomes usually rise—so the rise of 0.8 percentage points is in fact the largest since 1982 (and absolute poverty rates were far higher back then: in proportional terms the 2022/23 change is the worst on record). Within this, absolute child poverty rose by 2 percentage points to 25% (the worst increase since 1981), with an extra 300,000 children falling into poverty.

Stepping back, absolute poverty levels are still low by historic standards, with the overall rate in 2022/23 being unchanged from 2019/20. The government may still use its talking point that the number of people in absolute poverty has fallen since 2009/10 (though now only by 1.1 million rather than 1.7 million). But we can, and should, be making faster progress. For comparison, over the previous 13-year period, from 1996/97 to 2009/10, absolute poverty levels fell by 7.8 million.[7]

1.3 International comparisons

In a December 2023 report, the UN children’s agency UNICEF scored the UK against 42 high income and upper middle-income peer countries on the outcomes of policy responses to child poverty.[8] It placed the UK, along with France, Türkiye and Colombia, at the “bottom of the rankings” based on two indicators: rates of child income poverty between 2019 and 2021 and the proportional change in child income poverty over a seven-year period (2012–2014 and 2019–2021).[9] A summary of the report’s contents explained:

Overall, OECD countries experienced a period of prosperity in recent years. This period started in the aftermath of the global recession of about 2008–2010 and ended, for many countries, between 2019–2021, with the economic repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. From 2012 to 2019, general prosperity presented countries with a golden opportunity to address child poverty. Some countries seized this opportunity, while others let it pass.

Poland, for example, reduced child poverty by 38%. Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania reduced it by more than 30%. In contrast, five countries—France, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom—saw increases in poverty of at least 10%. For the United Kingdom, the increase was 20%.

2.   What are the causes of child poverty and what has been the government’s policy response?

2.1 Government position

In 2014 the coalition government published a command paper in which it collated evidence of the “drivers of child poverty for families in poverty now and for poor children growing up to be poor adults”.[10] The document examined 13 factors that a preliminary informal evidence review suggested may be important, rating them by their influence on child poverty as follows:

  • High certainty: Long-term worklessness and low earnings; parental qualifications; family instability; family size; and drug and alcohol dependency.
  • Medium certainty: Parental ill health and disability; and child ill health.
  • Low certainty: Housing; debt; and neighbourhood.

The review found educational attainment, non-cognitive development and an individual’s home learning environment not to be applicable.

Commenting on the factors overall, the document explained that the main factor driving poverty was:

[…] lack of sufficient income from parental employment, which restricts the amount of earnings a household has. This is not just about worklessness, but also working insufficient hours and/or low pay. This in turn is often caused by:

  • Long-term worklessness, increasing difficulties in returning to work, including skill loss, employer bias and changes in attitudes to work.
  • Low parental qualifications limiting an adult’s level of wages.
  • Parental ill health or family instability which can both reduce the number of parents whose earnings contribute to income, and may also mean the remaining parent is more restricted in terms of employment due to caring responsibilities either for the child or the disabled family member.
  • Family size, with larger families requiring higher levels of income to avoid poverty. It can also restrict parental employment due to caring responsibilities.
  • Drug and alcohol dependency, although only a small number of children are affected, the effects for these parents and children are profound.[11]

More recently, in a written statement published to mark the DWP’s statistical release on 21 March 2024, the government set out factors that in its view had driven the recent increase in child poverty. It also set out its recent policy response to rising levels of need, including support for labour market participation:

In 2022/23 the war in Ukraine and global supply chain challenges led to unexpected and high rates of inflation, which averaged 10% over the year. This outstripped growth in wages and occupational pensions, as well as benefits, which were increased by 3.1% in 2022/23, in line with the rate of consumer price inflation in September 2021, as is standard practice. As a result, there was upward pressure on poverty.

In response to these pressures, the government provided an unprecedented cost of living support package worth £96bn over 2022/23 and 2023/24, including £20bn for two rounds of cost of living payments for over 8 million households on eligible means-tested benefits, over 6 million people on eligible disability benefits and over 8 million pensioner households. This support helped to shield households from the impact of inflation. Analysis today shows that the government cost of living support prevented 1.3 million people from falling into absolute poverty after housing costs in 2022/23. That includes 300,000 children, 600,000 working-age adults and 400,000 pensioners.

This government has overseen significant falls in absolute poverty since 2009/10, underpinned by increases in labour market participation, with 4.1 million more people currently in employment, and sustained increases to the national living wage. In 2022/23, there were 1.1 million fewer people in absolute low income after housing costs compared to 2009/10, with the rate falling by 3 percentage points. This includes 100,000 fewer children, 700,000 fewer working age adults and 200,000 fewer pensioners.

In the context of global energy price rises, the war in Ukraine and surge in inflation, between 2021/22 and 2022/23 median incomes fell slightly and there were increases in the number of children in absolute poverty after housing costs and, to a lesser extent, for working-age adults. Absolute poverty rates for pensioners after housing costs remained stable.[12]

The statement continued by considering the government’s outlook for household incomes to 2025:

Since the period covered by these statistics, the economy has turned a corner. Inflation has more than halved and is forecast to fall below 2% in 2024/25. Wages are rising in real terms. Together with our cuts in national insurance, this means more money in people’s pockets.

As inflation comes down to target, we are continuing to provide extra support to those who need it most with the extension of the household support fund in England for a further six months to help vulnerable families with the cost of essentials. Following the government’s uprating of benefits and pensions by 10.1% in 2023/24, from April benefits will also increase by 6.7% […]

To further support those on low incomes, local housing allowance rates will rise to the 30th percentile of local market rents in April 2024. This will benefit 1.6 million low-income households, by around £800 a year on average in 2024/25. In addition, from April, we are further supporting the lowest paid with a 9.8% rise in the national living wage, following the largest ever cash increase last year, which means it will increase to £11.44 per hour.[13]

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions Viscount Younger of Leckie responded to an oral question in the House of Lords on the estimates shortly after the DWP release’s publication.[14] He reiterated the government’s view that “unexpected and high inflation rates” in 2022/23 following the war in Ukraine and global supply chain challenges had been a factor in the estimated rise in child poverty. Viscount Younger added that the government had “no plans to reintroduce an approach to tackling child poverty focused primarily on income-based targets”.

In response to a written question on the estimates in early April 2024, Viscount Younger added:

With over 900,000 vacancies across the UK, our focus remains firmly on supporting parents to move into and progress in work, an approach which is based on clear evidence about the importance of parental employment—particularly where it is full-time—in substantially reducing the risk of child poverty. The latest statistics show that in 2022/23, children living in workless households were over 6 times more likely to be in absolute poverty (after housing costs) than those where all adults work.[15]

In addition, in response to another written question on whether it had plans for a cross-government strategy on child poverty, the government said the DWP “already works consistently across government to support the most vulnerable households. This includes a cross-government senior officials’ group on poverty”.[16]

2.2 Selected other views

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has noted that families with children “face greater costs”.[17] It has also noted that family incomes can be affected by low pay, lack of paid work, rising living costs and inadequate social security benefits”.

In addition to the increased costs facing lone parents, CPAG has said that larger families, disabled people, families with babies under one, families with mothers aged 25 or under and minority ethnic families are at a greater risk of poverty. It has also identified “inadequate social security benefits” as a factor in poverty rates, explaining:

Since 2010, about £40bn has been taken from the annual social security budget through benefit freezes, the two-child limit, the ‘bedroom tax’ and the benefit cap. Deductions for things like repaying universal credit advances also reduce incomes. And many families need to make up a shortfall in rent due to cuts in housing benefit.[18]

In its press release on the DWP’s recent statistical release, CPAG identified the “two-child limit on benefits” as a “key driver” of child poverty.[19] Introduced on 6 April 2017, this limited the support provided to families—whether through tax credits, housing benefit or universal credit—to two children.[20]

For the Resolution Foundation, Adam Corlett and Lalitha Try noted that the DWP release showed “children in larger families (those with three or more children) now make up a narrow majority of the total number of children in absolute, or indeed relative, poverty even though they are only a third of children overall”.[21] They said the “ongoing roll-out of the two-child limit [on benefits] is projected to further increase poverty rates for this group”.

The Resolution Foundation had previously said it expects relative child poverty to return to its “upward trend when the cost of living crisis ends, as the two-child limit, the benefit cap and frozen local housing allowance rates continue to drag down income growth at the bottom of the distribution”.[22] In a January 2023 outlook document, it added:

Child poverty in 2027/28 is forecast to be the highest since 1998/99, meaning 170,000 more children will be in poverty than in 2021/22. This rise is driven entirely by large families: child poverty for families with three or more children is set to hit 55% in 2027/28, and 77% of children in families with four or more children will be in poverty by 2027/28.

In a January 2024 study, the foundation described the benefit cap, introduced in 2013, and the two-child limit, introduced in 2017, as “catastrophic caps”.[23] It said the policies affected almost half a million families and had contributed to increased child poverty rates.

The End Child Poverty Coalition, which counts among its membership organisations such as CPAG, Barnardo’s, Save the Children, the Church of England and the National Association of Head Teachers, has also called for the government to end the two-child limit on benefits entitlement.[24]

In a 2021 report, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee noted that evidence submitted during an inquiry on child poverty listed “rising living costs, low pay, limited and insecure work and reforms to social security since 2010” as “factors driving recent trends in child poverty”. Commenting on the earlier 2014 command paper, the committee added:

Further changes to the labour market, reforms to social security and a growing proportion of children in poverty in working families, compounded by the effects of the pandemic, lead us to conclude that DWP now needs to look again at the evidence on child poverty. We recommend that DWP commissions a new review of the latest evidence on child income poverty, its definitions, its causes and its consequences.[25]

The committee also said the government “must now commit to implementing a cross-departmental strategy for reducing child poverty, setting clear and measurable objectives which draw on the latest evidence”.[26]

3.   Read more

3.1 Briefings, articles, comment and reports

3.2 Recent parliamentary questions and debates

3.3 Selected committee reports

Cover image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash


  1. House of Commons Library, ‘Poverty in the UK: Statistics’, 8 April 2024, p 6. Return to text
  2. Office for Statistics Regulation, ‘The trouble with measuring poverty’, 27 July 2020; and House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, ‘Children in poverty: Measurement and targets’, 22 September 2021, HC 188 of session 2021–22, p 3. Return to text
  3. As above. See also: Oral question on ‘Child poverty’, HL Hansard, 26 March 2024, col 578. Return to text
  4. Department for Work and Pensions, ‘Households below average income: An analysis of the UK income distribution—FYE 1995 to FYE 2023’, 21 March 2024. See in particular ‘Section 7: Children in low-income households’. Return to text
  5. Office for National Statistics, ‘Average household income, UK: Financial year ending 2022’, 25 January 2023; and Adam Corlett and Lalitha Try, ‘Five takeaways from new living standards data’, Resolution Foundation, 22 March 2024. Return to text
  6. Child Poverty Action Group, ‘Child poverty reaches record high: Failure to tackle it will be ‘a betrayal of Britain’s children’’, 21 March 2024. Return to text
  7. Adam Corlett and Lalitha Try, ‘Five takeaways from new living standards data’, Resolution Foundation, 22 March 2024. Return to text
  8. UNICEF, ‘Child poverty in the midst of wealth’, December 2023. Return to text
  9. As above, p 9. Return to text
  10. HM Government, ‘An evidence review of the drivers of child poverty for families in poverty now and for poor children growing up to be poor adults’, January 2014, Cm 8781. Return to text
  11. As above, pp 6–7. Return to text
  12. House of Commons, ‘Written statement: Households below average income: Statistics release (HCWS371)’, 21 March 2024. Return to text
  13. As above. Return to text
  14. Oral question on ‘Child poverty’, HL Hansard, 26 March 2024, cols 575–9. Return to text
  15. House of Lords, ‘Written question: Poverty: Children (HL3603)’, 8 April 2024. Return to text
  16. House of Lords, ‘Written question: Poverty: Children (HL3625)’, 8 April 2024. Return to text
  17. Child Poverty Action Group, ‘Child poverty in the UK: Causes of poverty’, accessed 22 April 2024. Return to text
  18. As above. Return to text
  19. Child Poverty Action Group, ‘Child poverty reaches record high: Failure to tackle it will be ‘a betrayal of Britain’s children’’, 21 March 2024. Return to text
  20. House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, ‘Two-child limit’, 10 January 2019, HC 1540 of session 2017–19, p 3. Return to text
  21. Adam Corlett and Lalitha Try, ‘Five takeaways from new living standards data’, Resolution Foundation, 22 March 2024. Return to text
  22. Resolution Foundation, ‘Living standards outlook 2023’, 9 January 2023, pp 11–12. Return to text
  23. Resolution Foundation, ‘Catastrophic caps: An analysis of the impact of the two-child limit and the benefit cap’, 31 January 2024. Return to text
  24. End Child Poverty Coalition, ‘Children are living in families impacted by the two-child limit everywhere in the UK’, accessed 22 April 2024; and Save the Children, ‘Scrapping the two-child limit is the most cost-effective way of reducing child poverty’, 20 July 2023. Return to text
  25. House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, ‘Children in poverty: Measurement and targets’, 22 September 2021, HC 188 of session 2021–22, p 4. Return to text
  26. As above, p 5. Return to text