Working families on breadline would need to work eight days a week to escape it

Thursday 22 February 2024
Alice, a sad young girl stands at the window while looking into camera

New Action for Children analysis finds 300,000 low-income families with children trapped in poverty despite parent(s) working full time.

Our new research shows that an average low-income family where every parent was already working full time would need to squeeze in an extra 19 hours a week to escape the breadline¹ - equivalent to working an eight-day week².

While the government continues to state the best way to stop children growing up poor ‘is to ensure that they do not grow up in a workless household’³, the analysis of official figures reveals there are around 300,000 families with children living in poverty in the UK despite every parent being in full-time employment.

As well as looking at the number of extra hours needed to escape poverty, the research looked at earnings. It found the average (median) low-income family where every parent worked full time would need a weekly pay rise of £168 (£8,736 more a year) to clear the poverty line – and over a quarter (28%) would need to earn more than £300 extra a week (over £15,600 more annually)⁴.

Family of four reaching into a food delivery package from Action for Children

Why are some families in full time work still in poverty?

Some factors include low pay and job quality, ethnicity, geographic location and inescapable costs like housing and disability:

  • Nearly a quarter (24%) of parents within these low-income families were self-employed. Without protections like the minimum wage, holiday or sick pay, the self-employed are particularly at risk of poverty wages. The analysis shows nearly eight in 10 (78%) self-employed parents working full-time below the breadline are earning less than minimum wage.

It estimates there are 41,000 low-income families in full-time work who are trapped in poverty because at least one adult is self-employed with very low or even negative earnings (business losses).

  • Nearly half (46%) of those in poverty working full time were single parent families, and nearly one in five (18%) were from London.
  • Low-income parents in full-time work are much more likely to be in caring, leisure and other service and ‘elementary’ roles like cleaning, as well as significantly less likely to be in professional roles than the wider population of full-time workers. Nearly one in four (23%) are employed in the health and social work sector.
  • The figures show that for this group of families, their housing costs are on average £28 a week higher than other households with children. Yet shockingly, even if all their housing costs were reduced to zero, two fifths (39%) would still be in poverty.
Paul Carberry

Action for Children’s chief executive, Paul Carberry, said: ‘Our research shows we need to be honest about why so many children are growing up poor and confront the myth that work alone is a passport out of poverty.

‘In this election year, this is something all political parties must address. Further research is needed into the financial challenges facing these working families so we can find more targeted and effective solutions.

‘This should be part of a wider programme of reform that strengthens the social security system and tackles the barriers to work and opportunity that are keeping families trapped in poverty.’

Download the full report

Dan's story

Dan, Leanne and Beau

Dan Smith, 37, and his fiancée Leanne Jones, also 37, live in Kent with their four-year-old daughter, Beau.

Dan worked full-time at a specialist SEND school until November when he decided to become self-employed, starting a business as a SEND therapist supporting families with neurodiverse children. In the long run, he hopes he will able to earn more money to support his family.

It’s a risk starting up on my own. But I know if I can get some security with a new contract I’ll be able to earn more than I was, and have more time to spend with Beau and better meet her needs.

Leanne was working full-time until she had to halve her hours to help care for their daughter, Beau, who was born with Down’s Syndrome in 2020. Leanne now works five mornings a week, taking home on average around £1400 a month after tax.

Before Dan resigned from his job at the school, he was earning around £1900 a month after tax but his take-home pay has now fluctuates between £1000 and £1400 a month since becoming self-employed as a therapist. He’s currently waiting on news of whether he’s won a new contract – but he admits if he hasn’t, he may ‘be back to square one’ and have to search for a full-time job again.

Before Beau was born and Leanne had to go part-time, we were a £60,000 a year household - but we’re now living hand to mouth.

Dan continued: 'We’d worked really hard for many years to save £30,000 for a deposit for a house but when we looked into it, incredibly £30,000 wasn’t enough to make the repayments affordable on our incomes. The mortgage repayments would’ve been have been almost twice our rent at the time

‘So, instead we used our savings to set us up renting in a two-bed semi-detached house.  Then it wasn’t long before we needed to bite into the savings more and more every month just to cover our day-to-day expenses as the cost of living went up and up.

‘A lot had to go on nursery fees which were around £1600 a month just after Beau was born and are still £900 or so now Leanne has gone back to work part time. We’ve worked out we’d be worse off if Leanne went full-time because of the extra fees.

‘We’re now down to the last bits of our house deposit savings and they’ll all be gone by next month. It’s disheartening when we realised it took us four times as long to save them as to spend them’, he added.

Dan receives £107 a month in personal independent payments for ADHD, the couple claim £88 in child benefit each month and receive £350 a month in Disability Living Allowance for Beau. After paying their housing costs, their joint income is around £300 a week on average.

Dan continued: ‘That sounds OK doesn’t it, £300 a week? But when you put down what else comes out - like £900 a month for nursery fees for five mornings a week, £300 on fuel, £350 on food, £160 on council tax or unplanned costs like our recent overnight trip to London for a specialist appointment for Beau, that brings us down well below £200 a week for anything unexpected, which there usually is.

We’re left in the negative every month now and have to keep using our savings – but they’re running out fast, so we’ll soon fall into our overdraft - it’s become a real struggle.

‘I’ve never labelled myself as someone in poverty, others are far worse off of course – but I realise we’re slowly falling into that low-income group now unless things pick up. We’ve not had a holiday of any sort for ten years, and we’ve really had to scrape together to even give our daughter essential things she needs.’

Huw Beale, Media Manager, Action for Children07718 114 038/ [email protected]

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

Methodology: Action for Children’s analysis uses data from three pooled waves of the UK Family Resources Survey (FRS): the 2021/22, 2019/20 and 2018/19 years. The 2020/21 year is not used due to the reduced quality of the data collected during the pandemic.

[1] The poverty line or breadline refers to relative poverty - classed as having a net household income of less than 60% of the UK average (median), after housing costs. DWP: Households Below Average Income: for financial years ending 1995 to 2022.

[2] On average, poor single parents in full-time work need to work an additional 17 hours a week to break through the poverty line. In couples, the higher earner would need to work an average of 21 hours extra a week and the lower earner an extra 24 hours a week. So the average for all parents is an additional 19 hours more work a week.

We’ve defined full-time work as 30 or more hours a week, which is used by the Family Resources Survey and based on the International Labour Organisation definition. It’s a widely used and accepted statistical definition.

Our calculation of an eight day week is based on working an extra 19 hours at the same rate of hours per day (6 hours). This will obviously vary depending on individual working patterns, but regardless of how you calculate it, it would still mean these parents would need to work later into the evening. As any parent will know, that is often not an option. Full-time employment is classed as 30 or more hours a week which is used by the Family Resources Survey and based on the International Labour Organisation definition. It’s a widely used and accepted statistical definition.

30 hours a week = at least six hours a day, so 19 hours = 3.2 days + 5 days = 8.2 working days if working at the same rate of hours each day.

[3] Hansard – 23 November 2023 and during a BBC Radio 5 Live interview at 07.41am on 6 Feb 2024 the Prime Minister said ‘the best way to ensure that a child doesn’t grow up in poverty is to support their parents into work…’

[4] According to the Family Resources Survey, the median earnings across all adults in the sample were £298 per week. For employees it was £346 per week, but for self-employed people only £130 per week. This underlines once again the issue with low-paid self-employed people.

Illustrative examples

The research provides three illustrative examples from its group of low-income families in full-time work. In doing so, it shows how some families can remain trapped in poverty despite working full-time.

The three examples include:

1) A single parent on 30 hours per week at the National Living Wage (£11.44 per hour);

2) A couple, both parents full-time employees on 30 hours a week at the National Living Wage (NLW);

3) A couple, one parent an employee on 30 hours a week at NLW, the other self-employed on hourly gross earnings of £4.50 per hour. (This is the median hourly earnings for self-employed full-time workers in families in poverty in the 2021/22 Family Resources Survey, adjusted for inflation.)

Each family is assumed to live in London, have housing costs of £233 per week and to have three children (£233 per week is the average housing costs for families in poverty living in London with three or more children). The family is also assumed to be claiming Universal Credit.

About Action for Children

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 426 services across the UK, in schools and online, in 2022/23 we helped 765,905 children, young people and families.