Written evidence from Save the Children UK (CPM0021)



How should child poverty be measured and defined?

Save the Children believes that child poverty should primarily be defined as having a lack of income or material resources. We define a child living in poverty as a child within a family where the average income is significantly lower than that of the average family. This then leads to the child being excluded from the everyday social, educational, and cultural activities, along with not having the opportunities that most children enjoy. This contrasts with views which define poverty as being about broader factors such as worklessness or educational attainment. While those factors are important to bear in mind, they are primarily causes and/or consequences of living on a low income, not measures of poverty itself.

There is currently no single, agreed measure of income poverty. The most commonly used measures of poverty derive from the government’s Households Below Average Income statistics[1], which set out a number of different measures:

These measures are also provided before and after housing costs. Looking at income after housing costs is important as it provides a more accurate measure of a household’s disposable income.

Other commonly used measures include:

It is useful to have a variety of different measures to understand the true nature and different manifestations of poverty across the country. For example, relative poverty measures are essential in assessing whether low-income households are falling further behind average households, but measures such as the MIS are also important in understanding what extent households can afford the essentials they need.



However, this proliferation of measures has meant that there is no agreed definition of poverty, and consequently discussions on poverty are often dominated by discussions of how to measure poverty rather than how to reduce it and alleviate its impacts, which holds back progress to tackling poverty.

We welcome the Social Metrics Commission’s new measure as a non-partisan, independently developed measure which looks both at income and material needs. We do not believe other measures should be eradicated because of the importance of being able to analyse poverty from a variety of angles. However, we would welcome the potential for broad agreement on this measure from across the political spectrum and for this to be adopted by the Department for Work and Pensions. This would shift the focus from measurement and towards tackling poverty itself.

What has been the effect of removing from law the targets in place between 2010 and 2016?

Child poverty has increased significantly over the last few years and is set to rise further without intervention. The main cause for rising child poverty rates have been spending cuts and freezes to social security, which have hit families with children particularly hard, and will continue to have an impact over the next few years. [4]

While we do not know whether these cuts would have happened if there had been child poverty targets in place, the lack of targets is likely to have made it more difficult to hold the government to account on these cuts. Having child poverty targets set out in law provides a clear mechanism with which to hold the UK government accountable for its actions and assess the impact of its policies.

Child poverty is predicted to continue to rise regardless of whether or not the temporary £20pw increase to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit is kept. However, if it is not kept, we know that there will be an additional 730,000 children in poverty by the end of this Parliament.[5]

What is the impact of child poverty and how can it best be measured?

Child poverty has an enormous impact on children. Children living in poverty have lower educational attainment and poorer health outcomes than their peers. These effects last into adulthood, with children who have grown up in poverty likely to end up in lower-paid jobs, have poorer health outcomes, and lower life expectancy.[6] There is clear evidence that money itself has an impact on children. A lack of access to resources, as well as the stress caused by living on a low income has a direct impact on parenting, children’s experiences, and the home. All of which directly result in children having worse outcomes.[7]

As well as having an impact on their outcomes in the longer term, poverty also has a huge impact on how children experience childhood. Living in poverty means that children have to



go without the experiences and opportunities of their peers and are affected by the stress and worry of their parents. Save the Children research in autumn 2020, found that parents had seen an impact on their children’s mental health and emotional wellbeing due to living on a low income.[8] This is not simply an issue experienced during the pandemic but is an ongoing problem for children living in poverty.

Parents told us:

[My child feels] frightened, scared, sad and upset as my six-year-old doesn't understand what a mortgage is or the cost of living. I was very stressed and worried and with lockdown harder to hide the tears and frustration of not being to work and earn a living. My daughter will be mentally scarred from this period of time. - Anonymous survey respondent, Winter Plan for Children 

They are feeling different to other wealthier children, feeling dissatisfied and depressed. Their education has been affected by not having the right resources and technology. - Anonymous survey respondent, Winter Plan for Children

We are really trying not to let our child be affected by our shortness of money, but she is 11 years old and she can already see our situation, so she is not asking for too much. - Anonymous survey respondent, Winter Plan for Children

What links can be established for children between financial hardship, educational under-achievement, family breakdown and worklessness?

The link between poverty and early years attainment

We know that children growing up in poverty are more likely to miss out on the type of support, experiences, opportunities, and activities that stimulate their early learning and development. Poverty puts tremendous pressure on families and creates barriers such as stress, anxiety, limited capacity, material deprivation and reduced disposable income for experiences or activities. This makes it harder for parents to create the conditions or provide the resources and/or activities needed to maximise their children’s ability to explore, learn and understand the world around them. In the UK today, this accounts for half the gap in children’s cognitive outcomes [‘school readiness’] between children in poverty and those from middle-incomes before age five.

There is long-standing, consistent and robust evidence that shows a significant relationship between poverty and young children’s early learning outcomes. Children growing up in poverty are less likely to benefit from key elements of quality parental support in their early learning. Studies show that poverty can make it harder for families to consistently create and provide stimulating, enriching interactions, experiences and materials. Children are less likely to benefit from rich exposure to language, words and interactions. This can have significant impact on children’s cognitive competencies, such as communication, language and literacy skills which are reliable predictors of later achievement. Without support to overcome early disadvantage, the impact increases (and the gap widens) at every stage of learning and development. Some of the poorest children in the UK start school months behind their peers and the gap can grow through their school years – 28% of children currently leave reception without the communication and literacy skills they need to thrive.[9]


In November 2020, the Education Endowment Fund published a National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) study with Year 2 pupils in England that showed all pupils were behind Year 2 pupils from 2017 due to COVID school closures. However, there was a seven-month attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better off peers.[10]

What matters

It is well established in research that the quality of the home learning environment has a significant, if not the most significant, impact on children’s cognitive and social behavioural outcomes. The strength of the home learning environment is based on the quality of parental engagement and the objects and experiences in it. There is no fixed recipe, but research points to the following components that make up high quality parents’ support in children's learning.

1. The quality and responsive interactions between parent and child

2. Quality learning activities and experiences

3. Access to age-appropriate learning resources and materials


What would be the merits of having a cross-government child poverty strategy? How well has this worked in the past?

A cross-government child poverty strategy would be hugely valuable and could provide the basis for comprehensive action to tackle child poverty. The issue of child poverty has gained a lot of public attention during the pandemic, with a particular focus on food poverty and free school meals. This is very welcome, but the government’s approach to responding to this pressure has largely focused on short-term fixes through the provision of food and activities in the school holidays, rather than on looking at the underlying causes of child food poverty.

As we come out of the pandemic and face the prospect of rising child poverty rates, it is crucial that the government steps back and looks at what measures are needed to reduce child poverty in the long term and accepts that it has a role to play in ensuring families have enough money – via jobs, but also via social security for those on low incomes. A child poverty strategy would be a helpful tool in ensuring that this happens.

Save the Children UK


Founded in the UK in 1919, Save the Children is a global organisation helping children to survive and thrive in 120 countries, including here in the UK. In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, we launched an Emergency Response Programme and educational support for children in poverty in the UK, as well as responding at a global scale. To date, we have delivered 5480 grants to UK families impacted by the pandemic, working with 94 organisations across 21 areas of the UK, ensuring that 12,000 children have the material items and resources they need to help play, learn, and develop at home.



February 21

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/households-below-average-income-hbai--2

[2] https://www.jrf.org.uk/income-benefits/minimum-income-standards

[3] https://socialmetricscommission.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Measuring-Poverty-2020-Web.pdf

[4] https://www.resolutionfoundation.org/publications/the-living-standards-outlook-2021/

[5] https://www.resolutionfoundation.org/app/uploads/2021/01/Living-standards-outlook-2021.pdf

[6] https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/node/13970/pdf/why_money_matters.pdf

[7] K Cooper and K Stewart, Does Money Affect Children’s Outcomes? An update, CASEpaper 203, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, London School of Economics, July 2017

[8] https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/content/dam/gb/reports/winterplanforchildren.pdf

[9] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/children-and-families-ministers-naht-early-years-speech

[10] https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/news/eef-publishes-new-research-on-the-impact-of-covid-19-partial-school-closures/