Guest Blog: Addressing Child Poverty

This Guest Blog, by Caoimhe McKenna, David Taylor-Robinson, Sophie Wickham, Benjamin Barr and Rosie Kyeremateng, addresses the highly political issue of defining child poverty, within the UK context.

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The Government’s plan to repeal the 2010 Child Poverty Act, which committed them to eradicating child poverty in the UK by 2020, and dispense with the current definition of child poverty is highly concerning. This was in the context for a recent report which stated levels of child poverty in the UK were “unacceptably high” and expected to rise (CCs, 2015).

Ian Duncan Smith has indicated that the standard definition of relative child poverty (a household income below 60% of contemporary median) will be replaced with measures of ‘worklessness’, family breakdown, addiction, debt and educational attainment. Details of how this ‘new’ definition of child poverty will be formulated, and what the targets are, have not been outlined. This is concerning because an unvalidated and unclear measure of child poverty may be open to political manipulation.

No single measure of child poverty can capture the full picture. One reason the government have cited for ditching the relative income measure of child poverty is that in the context of the 2008/2009 economic recession child poverty appeared to fall. However, this was because the overall UK median income fell. The absolute poverty measure, which is adjusted for inflation, indicates poverty has risen, both before and after housing costs are accounted for (McGuinness, 2015).

Relative income measures of poverty are an international standard used by the European Union, the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, UNICEF and most income-rich countries. The measure is highly correlated with child health (figure 1). Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to have been born prematurely, die within the first year of life, develop obesity, have behavioural problems and perform less well at school (Griggs and Walker, 2008); these adverse risks also extend into adulthood (Raphael, 2011), increasing the risk of poor health and social outcomes across the life course.

But now more than ever a poverty measure based on income is important. The Institute for Fiscal studies have predicted a decade of rising child poverty, unprecedented since records began in the 1960s (Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission, 2014). The cuts to be announced in the Chancellor’s emergency budget, due to be published on July 8th, outlining a further £12 billion in cuts to working-age benefits are likely to make the situation worse.

The current policy response to the shameful levels of child poverty in the UK appears to be to obfuscate the measure. We suggest that paediatricians should be “up in arms” about the proposed changed. Considering that around 1 in 3 of our patients are already living in poverty (McGuinness, 2015) we must demand real action and certainly not permit any attempt to hide the true scale of the problem.


Figure 1. Infant mortality rate by relative child poverty (<60% median) for upper tier local authorities in England.

– Caoimhe McKenna, David Taylor-Robinson, Sophie Wickham, Benjamin Barr, Rosie Kyeremateng


About the authors

Dr. Caoimhe McKenna is a paediatrician working in North London and an Academic Clinical Fellow at the Institute of Child Health, UCL. She has a special interest in the social determinants of health and the impact of economic policy on child health.  She is also a member of the International Society of Social Paediatrics (ISSOP).
Dr. David Taylor-Robinson is a Clinical Senior Lecturer at the Department of Public Health and Policy at the University of Liverpool.  He is also an Honorary Clinical Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Child Health, UCL.
Dr. Sophie Wickham is a Research Fellow at the Department of Public Health and Policy at the University of Liverpool. Sophie’s research interest since working at the department revolve around the role policy interventions have on the social determinants of health inequalities.

Dr. Benjamin Barr is a senior Clinical Lecturer in Applied Public Health Research at the Department of Public Health and Policy at the University of Liverpool.

Dr Rosie Kyeremateng is a community paediatric trainee in the South West of England with interests in public health, global health and children’s environmental health.   Rosie is author of the ‘Infection in Schools’ module of the RCPCH Healthy Schools Programme, and she has contributed to a child right’s curriculum is associated with the Open University.  She is trainee representative on the International Society of Social Paediatrics (ISSOP) executive committee.


CCS 2015. Report of the UK Children’s Commissioners: UN Committee on the Rights of the Child Examination of the Fifth Periodic Report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

GRIGGS, J. & WALKER, R. 2008. The costs of child poverty for individuals and society: a literature review, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

MCGUINNESS, F. 2015. Poverty in the UK: statistics, Briefing paper. file://greenjack/cmckenna/Downloads/SN07096.pdf: House of Commons Library.

RAPHAEL, D. 2011. Poverty in childhood and adverse health outcomes in adulthood. Maturitas, 69, 22-26.

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