Child poverty and barriers to work

No comments

By Scott Compton, Senior Policy Advisor at Action for Children

We are often told that work is the best route out of poverty, but for many of the families we help, this mantra runs into trouble on contact with reality. At Action for Children, we support hundreds of thousands of children, young people and parents through our services each year. Many are struggling on low incomes, while also facing complex barriers to employment.

Last month, we published new research showing how many of the children in poverty live in so-called ‘work-constrained families’. These are low-income families who face significant potential barriers to lifting their incomes through work. Most of these households are already working to some extent – including many who are working full-time but still can’t escape the misery of poverty. Others have challenges that make it harder to take on more hours, like disability, ill-health and caring responsibilities.

We estimate that in 2021/22, there were 2.7 million children in poverty and in work-constrained families. That’s around two-thirds of the 4.2 million children in poverty.

We also looked at the nations and regions of the UK. In the North West, we estimate that of the half a million children growing up in poverty between 2017 and 2022, over 300,000 were in work-constrained families. That’s 65% of poor children in the North West in families with significant potential barriers to work – the joint highest rate in England. One of the barriers we identified in our research is where families are already maximising their hours by working full-time, but still fall below the poverty line. We estimate almost 60,000 children in the North West are experiencing this particularly alarming form of working poverty.

In total across the UK, there are around 300,000 families and over half a million children in poverty despite all parents being in full-time work. We took a deeper dive into some of the key characteristics of these families, identifying several factors likely to be involved in explaining why they’re still in poverty, including low pay and job quality, ethnic background, geographic location, and inescapable costs like housing and disability. Single parents, the self-employed, and Black and minority ethnic parents are significantly over-represented among these families, and almost a quarter work in the health and social work sector (23%). Shockingly, 78% of these parents who are self-employed earn below the minimum wage.

Poverty damages childhoods and impacts children’s life chances. Children who’ve grown up on low incomes do worse at school, earn less as adults, suffer from poorer physical and mental health, and are more likely to need help from a social worker. And this comes at huge cost to society. One estimate put the total cost of child poverty to the economy at £38bn a year in spending on public services and lost economic potential.

To get serious about tackling child poverty and its harms, the next government must take a broad approach. This should have two goals in mind: immediate action to shore up the basic adequacy of the system, and a wider programme of reform aimed at tackling the barriers to work and opportunity that are holding families back.

That means investing in Universal Credit, so families can at least meet their essential needs, and scrapping the benefit cap and two-child limit policies that are the main drivers of high and deepening levels of child poverty.

And it means better policies to support work-constrained families to overcome the barriers they face, so that work offers a more reliable route out of hardship.

Particular attention should be given to how we improve the quality and security of work, including how we build upon paid leave, flexible working, sick pay, reasonable adjustments and childcare. A serious review of how the DWP interacts with claimants and the quality of support they provide is also long overdue.

At Action for Children, we have been working with partners to set out the key issues and some potential solutions, and we will have more to say on this in the months ahead. In this election year, child poverty – and the barriers to escaping it – are critical issues that all political parties must address.


This article is featured in our 20 March newsletter

Want to hear about the latest poverty research, stories and events?

Stay on top of what you need to know. Sign up to our newsletter and join our powerful network of 2.6k+ professionals, volunteers and individuals actively engaged in tackling poverty across the UK.

GMPA will use the information you provide to send you our GMPA newsletter by email. We may occasionally send you emails about other GMPA projects, services and events to pursue our legitimate organisational activities, but we won’t share your personal information; transfer your data internationally; or use your data for automatic profiling. Your personal data will be stored on a secure, password protected database that can only be accessed by members of the GMPA team. Members of the GMPA team are required to adhere to the organisation’s privacy and data use policy. Your personal data will be stored until you tell us you no longer want to receive our newsletter. You have the right to know what information we hold about you and you can ask to see it, amend it or have it deleted by emailing us at


i3oz9sChild poverty and barriers to work