Child Poverty

What is Child Poverty?

Child poverty, as with poverty itself, is a complex notion to define precisely.

A typical holistic measure of 'poverty' is the standard of life enjoyed by an individual, measured principally by their level of income, and then incorporating a number of factors, including environmental, social, material, health and educative indicators.

Child poverty is widely perceived as a particularly problematic and disturbing facet of poverty, as the innocence of youth and helplessness of children to change their situation generates particular social concern.


Historically the welfare of children was felt to rest with the parents, family and then the local community. With the development of the welfare state after 1945, there was an increased belief in state responsibility for child welfare.

In Britain today, there is a vast array of legislative measures designed principally to ensure the welfare of the child is protected.

In particular, government has used reform of the tax and benefit system to guarantee family incomes and tackle child poverty. The Child and Working Tax Credits, launched in April 2003, were central to government efforts to tackle poverty and aim to support families and children in need.

The centrepiece of UK legislation on children is the Children's Act 1989. The Act emphasises parental responsibility and the duty of local communities and social services to protect and promote the child's best interests in their development stages.

The domestic provision for childcare, education and healthcare also derives impetus from international obligations ratified by the UK through multilateral institutions such as the United Nations. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child is an important document and represents the most universally adopted resolution in the United Nations system, with only the United States and Somalia failing to ratify it.

In 2002 a Special Session of the UN General Assembly resulted in the official adoption by some 180 nations of 'A World Fit for Children'. The new agenda for the world's children included 21 specific goals and targets for the next decade.

In the UK, the previous Labour government's stated objective was to halve child poverty by 2010 and to eradicate it by 2020. The government failed in its aim to reduce the number of children in poverty by 25 per cent by 2004-2005 from 1998-1999 levels, but insisted it could still meet its final target.

The Child Poverty Act passed in March 2010 requires the Secretary of State to meet four targets to eradicate child poverty by 2020 and a strategy to be produced every three years to meet the targets.

The Coalition government elected in May 2010 pledged to maintain the goal of ending child poverty in the UK by 2020.

Subsequently, in April 2011, the Government published "A New Approach to Child Poverty: Tackling the Causes of Disadvantage and Transforming Families’ Lives", setting out its first strategy for tackling poverty, covering the period 2011-14. The Government stated that "strengthening families, encouraging responsibility, promoting work, guaranteeing fairness and providing support to the most vulnerable" would be at the heart of the new strategy.


Despite the wealth of most Western countries and the consequent social support available to children in these states, vast numbers of children worldwide continue to suffer from devastating levels of poverty, many without basic food, education or health care.

There are many reasons for this child poverty, and famine, international trade, corrupt governments, prolonged wars and crippling debts ensure it persists.

Despite various multilateral commitments to reduce child poverty since the early 1990s, a wide-ranging 2004 report into global poverty by UNICEF found that over half the children in the developing world lived without basic goods and services, while 640 million were said to be in absolute poverty.

More recently, a UNICEF report published in October 2011 raised concerns about children living in urban poverty. Sheridan Bartlett of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) warned that although it was now widely recognised that the world was more than half urban, less widely acknowledged was "the catastrophic extent of urban poverty or its implications for hundreds of millions of children." She suggested that "community-driven responses, in partnership with local government, appear to have the greatest chance of effecting lasting change."

In the UK, the Government's new Child Poverty Strategy has attracted some controversy, in particular from the Campaign to End Child Poverty, a group of over 150 organisations which includes children’s charities, child welfare organisations, social justice groups, faith groups, trade unions and others.

The Campaign's spokesperson, Imran Hussain, described the Strategy as "empty of action on some of the key requirements and a long way below the standard required by Parliament in the Child Poverty Act."


Half of all the children in primary and nursery schools in England who are eligible for free school meals are concentrated in a fifth of the schools. This proportion is similar to that of a decade ago.

Because of this concentration, the perception of poor children in primary and nursery schools is that there are many more poor children than there actually are. For example, those eligible for free school meals have, on average, 29% of the pupils in their school eligible for free school meals whereas those not eligible for free school meals have, on average, 16% of the pupils in their school eligible for free school meals.

Two-thirds of all maintained primary and nursery schools in inner London have a high proportion of their children eligible for free school meals. This is much higher than in any other region.

Source: The Poverty Site: Concentrations of poor children – August 2011


"Helping children overcome poverty will make a huge difference not only to their lives but to the lives of their families, communities and to society as a whole. Ending child poverty means tackling a wide range of complex issues to improve children's chances in life and empowering families to move themselves out of poverty for good."

Department for Education - 2011

"It is shocking that 6 out of 10 children living in poverty have a parent in work whose income is not high enough to keep the family out of poverty.
"Too many parents are unable to gain decent work that will keep their families out of poverty. Too many others have lost jobs in the recession, or will lose their job because of government cuts.
"That's why we need a robust child poverty policy and a commitment from government to more jobs that keep families out of poverty."

The Campaign to End Child Poverty - 2011

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