Wales has the highest child poverty rate of all the UK nations

9 July 2014

Article written by Sian Thomas and Gareth Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Image from Pixabay. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Image from Pixabay. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Latest statistics published by the Department for Work and Pensions show that 200,000 children are living in poverty in Wales after housing costs are taken into account. This accounts for 31 per cent of children living in Wales in the 3 years to 2012-13, which is 2 percentage points lower than in the 3 years to 2011-12. This figure is the highest of the UK nations. It is also higher than all the English regions, other than London.

It is worth noting that the relative poverty rate is defined as having less than 60% of median household income, which in real terms has reduced in recent years. As median household income has fallen over this period, the level of income needed to be above the relative poverty threshold has fallen, meaning that levels of relative poverty did not increase during the economic downturn as you might expect.

It is evident that having a parent in work does not guarantee a route out of poverty for children in Wales. In line with the rest of the UK, one of the key features of recent years is the rise of in-work poverty.

How are these statistics calculated?

The most widely used child poverty measure is the percentage of children living in households with less than 60 per cent of the UK median household income after housing costs. Published annually, the Households Below Average Income (HBAI) reportpresents information on living standards in the UK, including estimates on the number and percentage of children living in low-income households. This infographic sets out how low income is measured in the report. In 2012, the Department for Work and Pensions consulted on changing the way child poverty is officially measured in the UK. No alternative measure has yet been announced and media speculation suggests that there will be no imminent changes to the current arrangements

The 2020 target

Child Poverty has had a higher profile on the political agenda since 1999, when the then Prime Minister Tony Blair made a commitment to halve child poverty by 2010, and eliminate child poverty by 2020. Most commentators agree it’s unlikely that this target will now be met. Commenting on the UK Government’s draft Child Poverty Strategy 2014-17, Alan Milburn, chair of the UK Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, said ‘the [UK]government lacks any credible plan to get back on track’ to meet its legal obligation to end child poverty by 2020:

‘This is not just an issue for the current government. Politicians from all parties say they are committed to the 2020 targets. […]Across the political spectrum, party leaders now need to come clean about what they plan to do to hit the targets, or what progress they can deliver if they expect to fall short.’

The Welsh Government has restated its own commitment to the target of eradicating child poverty by 2020, but has acknowledged that it will be extremely difficult to achieve. Vaughan Gething, Deputy Minister for Tackling Poverty has said:

‘I think that getting rid of the target now, because we think it is difficult, rather than it not being appropriate or not something that we should aspire to, is what makes people cynical about politicians and what we are here for.’

Welsh indicators

Since 2005, the Welsh Government has published its own updates against a set of 23 indicators relating to income poverty, work and worklessness, education and qualifications, housing and services and health inequalities. For each indicator, the baseline level of 2005 is compared with the most recent year’s data and aims to provide an overall picture of the ‘direction of travel’ of child poverty in Wales. The latest statistics were published today and show that on seven of the 23 measures there has been a deterioration that is statistically significant. Of these seven, most relate to measures which directly relate to economic conditions. There are four indicators, across a range of policy areas, show improvement. 11 indicators show no change.

The Welsh Government also has six indicators in place to measure progress against its 2011 child poverty objectives. The most recent update on these six objectives was published in the Child Poverty Strategy for Wales Progress Report in November 2013.

How does poverty impact on children?

Living in low income household is associated with poor outcomes for children, including worse health and education outcomes than their peers. For example, there is a strong link between how well children perform academically and whether or not they are entitled to free school meals. In 2012/13, 25.8 per cent of pupils who were entitled to free school meals achieved the Level 2 threshold (including English/Welsh and Maths) compared to 58.5 per of their pupils who were not entitled to free school meals. The Level 2 threshold is a volume of qualifications equivalent to 5 GCSEs at grades A*-C. In turn, leaving school with fewer qualifications translates into lower earnings over the course of a working life. In terms of health, poverty is linked to worse outcomes, including a lower life expectancy. The Welsh Government’s Programme for Government includes a commitment to close the gap in life expectancy between those in the most and least deprived areas of Wales, which was 7.1 years for men and 6 years for women in 2011. Children are also more likely to have a low birth weight; have worse dental heath; and are more likely to be the pedestrian victim of a car accident.

Approaches to addressing child poverty and its impact

The UK Government has responsibility for some of the key policy levers relating to child poverty: such as welfare and social security, fiscal and macro-economic policy. Other policy areas which impact on child poverty such as education, health and economic development are devolved to the Welsh Government.

Both the UK and the Welsh Government have brought forward new legislation, strategies and targets in an attempt to address and mitigate the problem. More recently in Wales, this includes the 2011 Child Poverty Strategy and the overarching 2014 Taking forward the Tackling Poverty Action Plan. The Welsh Government has today published the final evaluation of its Child Poverty Strategy. The evaluation found that more could be done to link economic growth strategies with poverty objectives; that there is no strong evidence that the scale of programming is enough to make the scale of change that is necessary; and that the duties placed on Local Authorities and other Public Bodies has had a limited impact in terms of new programming or allocation of additional resources to meet child poverty aims.

Huw Lewis, Minister for Education and Skills, says that ‘tackling the link between poverty and low attainment is now the top priority’. His department has launched initiatives which seek to close the attainment gap for children from low income households including the launch of the Schools Challenge Cymru programme and new guidance aimed at raising the attainment of learners from deprived backgrounds.