Written evidence from the Welfare Reform and Larger Families research project (CPM0022)



Project Team: Dr Ruth Patrick, University of York; Dr Aaron Reeves, University of Oxford; Dr Kitty Stewart, LSE; Kate Anderson, University of York; Mary Reader, LSE




This submission is based on our ongoing mixed methods research funded by the Nuffield Foundation, which explores the impact of recent benefit changes on larger families (see more at foot of submission). It responds to the questions of direct relevance to our emergent research findings, and documents the importance of income-based measurements of poverty, which are essential in tracking the extent and impact of poverty. Our submission further emphasises the unhelpfulness of measuring worklessness as part of efforts to measure poverty. This makes little sense given the rising incidence of in-work poverty, which is especially prevalent among larger families, for whom work often – and increasingly – fails to act as a protection from poverty.


  1. How should child poverty be measured and defined?


a)      Government should prioritise income-based measures


Child poverty in essence is about an absence of income, and income-based measures therefore must be integral to its measurement. This is evidenced from both qualitative and quantitative evidence sources, which further document the importance of cash-based transfers in reducing child poverty.[1]


b)      It is vital to measure both incidence and depth of child poverty


It is also critical to engage not just with the incidence of poverty (or headcount measures), but with poverty depth. This is especially pertinent against a context of rising destitution, as evidenced by recent research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and more recently NIESR. This is further supported by our early analysis of the incidence of child poverty among larger families, which indicates that more children in larger families are falling below a combined low income and material deprivation threshold (which measures the ability of households to afford basic necessities, such as a regular source of protein in their diet). In addition, the median poverty gap is rising for both larger and smaller families.

Source: Authors’ analysis of the HBAI dataset; publication forthcoming.



c)      Measuring child poverty must attend to differences according to household size


Child poverty needs to be considered in the context of household size. This is important because the fall and rise of child poverty over the last 25 years has been largely driven by the fall and rise in poverty rates among children in larger families. Child poverty rates among children in smaller families are lower and have remained relatively steady since the turn of the century.


Source: Authors’ analysis of the HBAI dataset; publication forthcoming.



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


Child poverty is damaging for all children that experience it, but particularly damaging for children living in deep poverty. Analysis by CPAG shows that the benefit cap pushes families into deep poverty[2], many of whom are families with three or more children. Families affected by the benefit cap describe having to make choices between feeding their children and paying their rent, and between buying children’s clothes or buying essential baby equipment[3] – with obvious consequences for children’s outcomes.


What is less well known is the wider impact of policies like the benefit cap, and how their effects can further damage the life chances of children. These impacts must be better understood, and arguably better measured, if we are to mitigate the impact of child poverty on children. As well as being directly affected by limited resources, children may be affected via the impact of poverty on the adults in the household. The benefit cap illustrates this point. As part of our research we have examined the impact of the benefit cap on mental health.[4] Drawing on data from 900,000 individuals collected between January 2015 and December 2018, the research shows that in addition to increasing child poverty, the cap also increases the prevalence of depression or anxiety among those at-risk of being capped, by 2.6 percentage points compared with those at a low risk of being capped. Our research shows the potential unintended consequences of the policy – the impact on the mental health of those experiencing cuts in income as a result of the cap. If the mental health of parents declines this is very likely to have negative effects for children too, potentially adversely affecting children’s well-being, their educational development and their behaviour.[5]


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



The vast majority of children in poverty are living in households where someone works.[6] Poor quality jobs (in terms of hours, pay and career progression), insufficient social security, high housing costs and expensive childcare mean work is not an answer to poverty for millions of households. This is particularly true for larger families. It is also worth noting that very few households are ‘voluntarily workless’; the vast majority of workless households contain someone with a disability, or there are young children in the household.


Our research shows that poverty is rising for children in larger families regardless of their parents’ work status (see figure below). Indeed, this is true even when examined against a fixed income poverty line. This demonstrates that the government’s focus on getting workless households into work will not solve child poverty, particularly child poverty in larger families. It further demonstrates the flawed logic of using worklessness as a measure or indicator of child poverty.



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Source: Authors’ analysis of the HBAI dataset; publication forthcoming.



About the welfare reform and larger families project


Larger families have always faced a disproportionate risk of poverty. Two recent welfare reforms (the household benefit cap, which limits the benefit income a household can receive, and the two-child limit, which restricts eligibility for means-tested financial support to two children) are expected to exacerbate this risk even further. These reforms also break with precedent in the social security system by severing the link between assessed need and entitlement to support. Despite the significance of these changes, there are important gaps in our understanding of:


  1. how the reforms are affecting patterns of poverty;
  2. how families themselves are responding to the changes; and
  3. whether they are affecting wider well-being.


There is some early analysis of these policies but the available evidence is small-scale and incomplete. While the policies already affect an increasing numbers of families, they have yet to be formally evaluated. Our research project aims to deliver timely and policy relevant evidence on the impact of the two-child limit and benefit cap on affected families. We are working with the Child Poverty Action Group as a project partner, who will help us share findings from the project, and we are also in close collaboration with the councils of Bradford, Greenwich and Tower Hamlets.



February 21




[1] Bourquin, Pascale, Jonathan Cribb, Tom Waters, and Xiaowei Xu. 2019. Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2019. The IFS.

[2] Capped in the New Year (December 2020) Child Poverty Action Group

[3] Reference – covid realities or CPAG research

[4] Reeves, Aaron, Mark Fransham, Ruth Patrick, and Kitty Stewart. 2020. Did the Introduction of the Benefit Cap in Britain Harm Mental Health? A Natural Experiment Approach. 221. Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, LSE.

[5] Cooper, Kerris, and Kitty Stewart. 2017. “Does Money Affect Children’s Outcomes? An Update.”

[6] Social Metrics Commission. 2020. “Measuring Poverty 2020: A Report of the Social Metrics Commission.” 121.