The changing face of child poverty

Family incomes fell during the recession – but the cost of raising a child went up. How have the lives of the poorest families been affected, and how are they coping now? Donald Hirsch says new research will help provide some of the answers.

Picture credit: Greens MPs

The landscape of child poverty has changed greatly over the past decade. Politically, the bold promises of the Brown/Blair era to reduce and eventually eliminate child poverty seem a distant memory.

Economically, a period of rising family incomes has gone into reverse. And the lived experience of low family income appears to have changed too. We hear much less about relative poverty causing worse-off children to feel that they are unable to keep up with the rising expectations of their peers and more about food banks, cuts in benefits and the consequences of unstable family income caused by zero hours contracts, spiralling childcare costs and a harsh benefits regime.

But much evidence of the effects of this deterioration on families’ lives remains anecdotal – for example from case studies assembled by charities. A depleted pool of funding for social research has not tended to support qualitative studies of “life on a low income” of the kind carried out in the 1990s and early 2000s, and gathered in powerful meta-studies by Elaine Kempson (1994) and Tess Ridge (2009).

Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Social (CRSP) has in the past contributed to the qualitative literature on what it is like to live on a low income, including for example studies on experiences of credit and debt and of low income in later life . More recently, CRSP’s studies on Minimum Income Standards (MIS) have sought to widen the understanding of low income, by developing socially agreed thresholds of what income households need in order to participate in society at an adequate level.

This line of research has sought to invert the framework for debate: rather than looking at how not having something makes you deprived, the MIS studies consider how having certain things allows you to have “the choices and opportunities necessary to participate in society”.

This regular research on the cost of a minimum household budget, started in 2008, has shown the extent to which family income has fallen behind an adequate standard during the recession and its aftermath.

The proportion of families with children not reaching the standard grew from 30 to nearly 40 per cent between 2008 and 2012. This is partly because of some serious cuts in benefits and support for childcare, but also because the cost of raising a child has been rising rapidly. Studies of the evolving cost of a child, rooted in the first-hand experience of these costs witnessed by participants in the MIS research, take account both of changes in requirements and changes in prices.

Things like childcare and food have become more expensive but in addition, cuts in transport services have in many parts of the country made it harder for families to cope without the added expense of a car.

This kind of research helps avoid a perennial problem of measuring trends in poverty: that neither “absolute” nor “relative” measures give the whole picture. Back when household incomes were steadily rising, it was rightly argued that a poverty line held constant in real terms would not have described adequately what families needed to be part of an evolving society.

The poverty line

However, the relative measures that resulted have given counter-intuitive results in recessionary times, when falling family incomes are not reflected in official poverty rates, because the poverty line itself has fallen with median income.

Of course, it could be argued that more austere times lower the threshold of social participation because expectations and norms are depressed. MIS has allowed that hypothesis to be empirically tested, and suggests that, except for some minor economies in what is deemed an “acceptable minimum”, even a long recession has not had this effect. A minimum living standard is defined in similar ways by the general public now as it was in 2008.

Having established that family incomes have declined relative to this benchmark, CRSP is now returning to its qualitative study of the actual experience of families whose incomes are inadequate. In a new project being carried out in 2015 (funded, like the main MIS research, by Joseph Rowntree Foundation), it will talk in depth to a range of families who fall below the minimum standard about the consequences of low income for their lives.

This will not only start to fill the gap, referred to above, in research on the experience of low income in the context of our present economic times, but also follow through on looking at “below-adequate income” rather than “poverty” or “deprivation”.

By exploring the experiences of the two in five families whose incomes are insufficient for what people consider a minimum acceptable standard of living, it will not focus on acute problems such as homelessness or going without food, but rather map the wider fallout of minimum family costs racing ahead of what many parents can afford. The results, out around the end of this year, will show more clearly the price our children will pay if wages, benefits and eventually the Universal Credit are not substantially improved for these families.