We can easily end child poverty in the UK. Here are five things to know

Progress can be made. We must not let stubbornly high rates turn us into fatalists


What is the case for tackling child poverty? Can we make a dent in it? How? These questions have not been at the centre of British politics for the past 14 years, and the extent to which they will return to it under a Labour government remains to be seen. But they should. Here are five things anyone who wants to see Britain become a more equal country needs to know.

Poverty has changed. In so many ways, not least the state of the economy and public finances, this is not 1997. On 25 November 1997, just months after the New Labour government was formed, Gordon Brown introduced the annual winter fuel payment for all pensioners. He was reflecting the concerns not just of 1990s politicians but of anti-poverty campaigners too: the two great and equal evils to be alleviated were pensioner poverty and child poverty. The inequality surge of the 1980s had left both sky-high: in 1990 almost 40% of pensioners and more than 30% of children were in poverty. It was no country to grow up or grow old in. But today pensioner poverty levels have been halved to 16%, while, in contrast, child deprivation has stayed stubbornly high: 30% in Britain today are growing up in poverty.

There are still too many poor pensioners but, for the first time in history, older people are now less likely to be in poverty than the rest of the population. The retired have bucked Britain’s income stagnation trend with 24% income growth between 2004/05 and 2021/22, in contrast with 11% growth for the rest of the population. So the good news is that economic outcomes for older age groups are far rosier than they used to be. Child poverty is where the focus must be in the 2020s.

Child poverty is about larger families. On 23 February 2024, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced that 2022 had seen 605,479 babies born in England and Wales. The fertility rate, consistently falling since 2010, had dropped to 1.49 children per woman, the lowest since comparable records began in the 1930s and far below that needed to maintain our population without migration. Politicians of left and right worried about what this meant for our society and economy, but should we be surprised people are having fewer children? For too many families, having a third child or more come comes with a poverty guarantee: 46% of children in larger families (with three or more children) are now in poverty, up from 36% in 2011/12. In fact all of the rise in child poverty over the past decade is about rising poverty among larger families.

It’s the lives behind the statistics that matter. If poverty statistics do not convince you, then think about what this means families are living through. Larger families are now four times as likely to have had to rely on a food bank as smaller families, and three-quarters of larger families are materially deprived (which means going without essentials such as a winter coat for children), compared with one in three families with fewer than three children.

Everyone pays the price of a high-poverty Britain. When 11% of teenagers say they are missing at least a meal a week, compared with 2.6% in (much poorer) Portugal, it’s the next generation of workers who are too hungry to be able to learn as they should in school. As councils go bust around the country, one contributing factor is them having to find the money to house record number of homeless families with children.

Progress can be made. We must not let stubbornly high child poverty rates turn us into fatalists. Hundreds of thousands of children were taken out of poverty under the last Labour government. And those pensioner poverty falls also show how much things can change. Consider this – higher employment that has particularly benefited poorer households and big minimum wage increases mean that Britain would actually have become more equal over the past decade, if it wasn’t for benefit cuts that hammered the incomes of poorer households by an average of £2,800.

The lesson? If we combine market reforms to tilt labour and housing markets in the interests of lower-income families, with redistribution, then poverty can and will fall. Let’s make that concrete. Scrapping the two-child benefit cap has real costs (£2.5bn) but they are nothing compared to the costs of keeping it: abolition will immediately lift about half a million children out of poverty. Change can come.

This article was originally published in The Observer on 18 May.