Almost two million children could be trapped in poverty because of the ‘work your way out of poverty’ myth

Wednesday 08 February 2023
All worked out front cover image

New Action for Children research reveals up to 1.95 million UK children could be trapped in poverty and hardship as their parents face at least one major barrier to working or taking on extra work

  • Despite the Prime Minister’s claim that the best way to ensure children do not grow up in poverty “is to ensure that they do not grow up in a workless household” the charity’s analysis shows that for families where both parents or a single parent is already working full time, have long-term sickness or disability, or caring responsibilities, work is often not a route out of hardship.
  • 440,000 children are in poverty despite their parents or single parent working full-time, including over a quarter of a million (266,000) children in a couple-parent family where both parents are working full-time.
  • With child poverty levels expected to climb as the cost-of-living crisis deepens, Action for Children calls for changes to the social security safety net and childcare support to help more parents to break through barriers to work.
  • Raising the Child Element of Universal Credit by at least £15 a week and abolishing the Benefit Cap would help lift 320,000 children out of poverty.

New Action for Children research released today suggests up to 1.95 million children in the UK could be trapped in poverty as their parents face at least one major barrier to working themselves out of hardship.

Despite the Prime Minister’s recent assertion that the best way to ensure children do not grow up in poverty “is to ensure that they do not grow up in a workless household” and creating jobs ‘is the best anti-poverty strategy' [1], the charity’s analysis of government data estimates there are up to 440,000 children in poverty despite their parent(s) already working full-time.

The other barriers to work identified in the analysis are:

  • An additional 641,000 children are in poverty where at least one parent is disabled
  • A further 232,000 children are in poverty where at least one child is disabled
  • An extra 500,000 children are in poverty where there is at least one child aged under 2
  • A further 137,000 children in single-parent families in poverty where the parent is already working part-time with a child aged 3-10

The research also found that many of the children in poverty live in families that experience more than one barrier to work, meaning they are even less likely to be able to improve their situation by taking on work.

  • 1.36 million children in poor families were found to have one barrier to work;
  • 495,000 children in families with two barriers;
  • up to 95,000 that face three barriers to work as a route out of poverty.

With soaring child poverty levels expected to climb further, Action for Children then modelled the impact various policy reforms by Government would have on child poverty levels. It recommends:

  • Raising the Child Element of Universal Credit by at least £15 a week and abolishing the Benefit Cap to lift nearly 320,000 children out of poverty.
  • As the Benefit Cap is a big driver of deeper poverty, removing it would also help to boost the incomes of those still left in poverty so their experience of it is less severe. Both reforms together would cost the government an estimated £4 billion a year.

Action for Children is also calling for benefit levels to keep pace with prices and living standards and an independent review of the childcare system and how it is funded. It also wants to see changes to the childcare support available to families through Universal Credit to helps parents to return to work.

Director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, Imran Hussain, said:

“To improve the lives and life chances of all children we need to be honest about why so many are growing up in poverty and hardship. And we must confront the myth that everyone in poverty can simply work their way out of it.

“Our findings show that when it comes to supporting families in financial distress, work is simply not the silver bullet it is often presented as. We need more realism and less rhetoric from government in how we talk about the relationship between poverty and work. And we need a social safety net that ensures families can meet their essential costs and restores the link between a family’s needs and the support that is available to them.”

Case study: Jack* is the father of three girls, and works 17 hours a week as a supermarket delivery driver while his partner is a full-time carer for their children.

His youngest has spina bifida and his oldest is autistic. They both worked full-time previously, but when their youngest was born “it changed everything”. Jack takes home around £600 a month from his job, and the family gets around £1,200 a month in Universal Credit. They also receive £360 Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for the youngest child, child benefit, and his partner gets £63 a week Carer’s Allowance.

Most of the DLA money goes on fuel to take their youngest to her hospital and physio appointments, over 100 miles away. They’re able to claim some of the costs back, but not all of it. Energy costs are a big worry for them. Their electric was on a fixed rate when we spoke to them, but still cost £130 a month - partly due to all the washing they have to do. The biggest cost pressure they’re facing is food.

“It’s a struggle. Obviously, it comes in and then goes out very fast because the kids eat a lot. We’ve just found out that they can have the free school dinners, so we’ve put them on to that. Which has helped a little bit, but its just kind of, you do your shopping and they’ve eat (eaten) it out the cupboards before you’ve even got a chance and then you get to the end of the month and you’re thinking, ‘What are we going to give them?’”

Every month they have to borrow money they may not be able to pay back from family to buy food or pay for fuel to get to their daughter’s appointments. They received the £326 Cost of Living payment in July 2022, but had to spend it all on fixing the car: “It was lucky it came in because we needed it but it’s not really going to help out with how expensive everything’s going”.

When he first started claiming Universal Credit, they had to wait five weeks for the first payment and take out an advance loan which was deducted from their UC payments each month. It took over a year for it to be paid back. Their benefit entitlements are also restricted by the Two Child limit, which means they receive no extra child payment for their third child. Jack feels this is unfair and doesn’t take their circumstances into account as parents of a disabled child:

“We were working when we had our third child, so it was our choice. We didn’t expect her to be disabled or need extra care and we would have worked and paid for it, but the situation changed and that’s where it leaves you. We weren’t on benefits and then thought we’ll have 3 kids or whatever else, it actually changed for us and we were working up until that point. And then not to get the help, it doesn’t seem fair because it was a change… and it does happen to people, a lot of people.”

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity



Arron Williamson, Media Officer, Action for Children:

07718 244 125 / [email protected]

Out of hours: 020 3124 0661 / [email protected]


[1] Prime Minister questions - 9 November 2022 - Hansard

  • Action for Children protects and supports vulnerable children and young people by providing practical and emotional care and support, ensuring their voices are heard and campaigning to bring lasting improvements to their lives. With 447 services across the UK, in schools and online, in 2021/22 we helped 671,275 children, young people and families.