The limits of work as a route out of poverty and hardship

Wednesday 08 February 2023
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What are the barriers to escaping poverty through work? Find out more

Our latest report reveals work doesn’t offer a route out of poverty for many families.

Read the report: All worked out?

What does our new analysis show?

New Action for Children research reveals up to 1.95 million children in the UK could be trapped in poverty and hardship due to their parents facing one or more major barriers to working, or to taking on extra work.

In our analysis, we found the following potential barriers among these 'work-constrained families':

Many of these children live in families facing multiple barriers to work, making them even less likely to be able to improve their situation.

In total there are up to:

- 1.36 million children in poor families that have one barrier to work

- 495,000 children in families with two barriers

- 95,000 in families that face three barriers to working as a route out of poverty

What’s the impact of child poverty where you live?

Find out how many children live in poverty in your area

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Why isn’t work a route out of poverty and hardship for many families?

Low pay and poor quality jobs

Low pay is a significant cause of in-work poverty and can be very hard to overcome. One in six workers earns below the Real Living Wage and benefit reforms have tended to push people into part-time, low-paid jobs with no prospect of progression. Our figures show there are 440,000 children in poverty living in families where the parent(s) are already working full-time. Couple this with the rising cost of living, and some families simply cannot work their way out of financial hardship. As we move into recession, low wages and labour market conditions are likely to become increasingly difficult barriers to overcome.


Children in single-parent families are almost twice as likely to be in relative and persistent poverty, and three times more likely to face material deprivation and food insecurity. Single-parents face many practical and financial difficulties as the main carer for a child and often the sole source of income. It can be much harder for a single-parent to enter and progress in work, afford childcare, or pay for essential living costs. If they cannot work they may be completely reliant on the social security system and the support of friends, family and charities. Many will have no choice but to get into debt to pay the bills.

The cost and availability of childcare

Hardship in families with very young children is partly driven by the high cost and often limited provision of childcare. The UK has some of the highest childcare costs in the developed world according to the OECD. The average full-time childcare fees for parents with children under two has increased by nearly £3,000 a year since 2013 – a 26% rise. This has meant that many parents are not able to make genuine choices about re-entering the workplace after having a child.

Parent carers

If a parent is caring for a long-term sick or disabled child, or another close relative, it is likely to significantly limit their ability to work. With half of carers (45%) providing care for 90 or more hours each week, it is not surprising that only two in 10 carers are in full-time employment. On average a family with a disabled child will pay hundreds of pounds more a month to have the same standard of living as a family with a non-disabled child.

Parental ill-health and disability

Parents with disabilities or long-term health conditions face their own formidable set of barriers to raising their incomes through work. For some, work will simply not be an option. Others may just need the right support to better prepare and equip themselves for the workplace, but can face difficulties in finding, staying in, and progressing in work. Several of the parents we spoke to for this report were unable to work due to their own disabilities or ill-health. All were claiming benefits but still struggled a lot financially.

I have to think about going back to work because I’m becoming so much more in debt with things… Because what other choice do I have? It doesn’t matter how much pain I’m in, it doesn’t matter what mental state I’m in, it doesn’t matter about any of that, I have to try and find a job to keep our heads above water.

A disabled parent we interviewed for our report who is having to think about returning to work before she is ready.
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