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Child poverty awareness

Free or affordable services, sensitivity to financial difficulties and a non-judgemental approach are essential to make early years services inclusive and accessible to all parents. Everyone benefits from universal services.

What is child poverty?

'Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack resources to obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies in which they belong’.[1] In the UK, around 1 in four children are living below poverty line, set at 60 per cent of the median household income.[2]

People may be in poverty for many reasons, including disability or illness, caring responsibilities, bereavement, unemployment or low pay. Many people in low-paid work are entitled to benefits to supplement their wage because it is not enough to live on. Work does not provide a guaranteed route out of poverty in the UK. Two-thirds (66 per cent) of children growing up in poverty live in a family where at least one member works. Benefit levels are set at the minimum a person needs to live on, and are inadequate to lift families out of poverty. High expenditure for housing, fuel and childcare costs can also leave people in poverty.3

Child poverty blights childhoods. Growing up in poverty has long-lasting effects on a child’s health, development, education and lifetime opportunities.[3] Many parents often go without for themselves, or get into debt in order to ensure their children have sufficient food, clothing, toys or treats, storing up long term problems for families and the health of parents. Low income may often go together with living in poor housing in deprived areas with lack of transport links, amenities and play areas.

What does this mean for professionals?

Being a parent can be expensive; there can be a huge pressure of parents to spend money on their children. Think about your contact with parents and what resources you expect them to have and afford. Some parents may have difficulty affording food, clothing and equipment for their families or paying for groups or outings.

Ensure messages about diet, play, health and safety are balanced with what is affordable, and make suggestions for free or low cost alternatives.  The play@home resources offer ideas for free play for young children. 

Media and peer pressure on parents may lead people to take loans to buy expensive equipment, trapping families into long-term poverty and the stress of dealing with debt.

 ‘Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how expensive it is to be poor’.[4]

 People on low incomes are often unable to access the best deals online or get reductions on utilities by paying by direct debit, or lack transport to shop around for bargains or bulk shopping. Be aware of the stigma of poverty, and that low income families are less likely to take up services that are seen as just for the poor, or want used or second hand clothes or equipment.

Key messages

  • Don’t assume everyone can afford to pay for resources, e.g. a few pounds for a parent/toddler group may put this out of reach for some families (but they may not tell you this is the reason).
  • Don’t be judgemental – some people may appear to have expensive items but this does not necessarily mean they have an adequate income for their family. For example, having an expensive phone but no credit.
  • Don’t assume everyone knows what services are free, and is already receiving everything they are entitled to – many families miss out.
  • Be aware of hidden problems and poverty traps – for example: relying on fast food may be because cannot afford to get cooker repaired; reluctance to try new foods due to expense of wasting food.
  • Scotland is blessed with a beautiful natural environment, and children hugely enjoy and benefit from running around outdoors. But transport, suitable warm waterproof clothing and footwear, and being able to afford to wash muddy clothes can be a barrier to making the most of it.
  • The decision about what to spend money on is up to the parents – buying an X-Box may seem extravagant but may be pragmatic when faced with the prospect of keeping two kids entertained over the summer holidays in a small flat with no garden.
  • Don’t confuse poverty with other problems such as drug or alcohol dependency, crime or lack of parenting skills. These are separate issues that need to be addressed and do not explain the difficulties of the overwhelming majority of families in poverty.

 When preparing services

  • Encourage activities where people can pool resources and share in the outcome, e.g. group cooking
  • Keep materials for free activities, e.g. art/music play with empty cardboard boxes, plastic containers, etc.
  • Encourage exchange schemes for equipment/clothing (bear in mind stigma)
  • Make use of ideas from play@home, Play Scotland & Play Talk Read – but don’t just give people the website links – they may not have or afford access)

Further information

Child Poverty Action Group

[1] Peter Townsend, Poverty in the UK, Allen Lane 1979Poverty in the United Kingdom, Allen Lane, 1979

[2] Households Below Average Income study, Department for Work & Pensions

[4] James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961)