'It's A Struggle': When Parents Aren't Able To Work Their Way Out Of Poverty

"We must confront the myth that everyone in poverty can simply work their way out of it," says Imran Hussain from the charity Action for Children.
A stock image of a man and his daughter at home
skynesher via Getty Images
A stock image of a man and his daughter at home

As the end of each month draws nearer and the cupboards grow bare, Jack* and his partner wonder how they’re going to feed their three children.

They used to work full-time but when their third child was born and they discovered she had spina bifida – where the spine and spinal cord doesn’t form properly – “it changed everything”.

His partner left her job to become a full-time carer and now receives a £63 per week Carer’s Allowance, while Jack works 17 hours a week as a supermarket delivery driver, taking home about £600 a month.

The family also receive around £1,200 a month in Universal Credit, £360 Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and child benefit. But with the cost of everything rising – from fuel to food to energy – they find it challenging to get by.

Energy costs are a big concern for the family, but the main pressure they face comes from the rising price of food. “It’s a struggle,” says Jack. “Obviously, it comes in and then goes out very fast because the kids eat a lot.”

The family are able to access free school dinners, which takes some of the pressure off, but at home they’re still finding it difficult to keep food on the table at times.

“You do your shopping and they’ve eaten it out the cupboards before you’ve even got chance and then you get to the end of the month and you’re thinking: ‘What are we going to give them?’ Jack says.

The family received the £326 Cost of Living payment in July 2022 but had to spend it on fixing their car, which they need to drive their daughter to her hospital and physio appointments 100 miles from where they live.

Most of the disability allowance they receive goes on fuel to get to and from appointments, says Jack, and their benefit entitlements are restricted by the Two Child limit, which means they receive no extra child payment for their youngest child.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak recently suggested 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 that creating jobs “is the best anti-poverty strategy”.

While that might work for some, an analysis of government data by the charity Action for Children estimates there are up to 440,000 children in poverty despite their parent(s) already working full-time.

What’s more, single-parent families, families with young children under the age of two and those with disabled children and/or parents are most likely to face barriers in accessing work, the research found.

And many children in poverty live in families that experience more than one barrier to work, meaning the parents are even less likely to be able to improve their situation by simply getting a job.

The charity suggests raising the Child Element of Universal Credit by at least £15 a week and abolishing the Benefit Cap could help lift nearly 320,000 children out of poverty.

The benefit cap is a limit on the total amount of benefits people can get. Single parents with children, and couples with children, can receive no more than £1,666.67 per month in benefits if they live outside London. While those in London can receive up to £1,916.67 in benefits each month.

Removing the Benefit Cap would help to boost the incomes of those still left in poverty so their experience of it is less severe, Action for Children suggested.

Both of these reforms together would cost the government an estimated £4 billion a year.

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.”

Earlier this year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggested a £20-a-week Universal Credit uplift given out during the height of the pandemic reduced poverty among larger families and young children. Unfortunately the scheme was scrapped in October 2021.

According to JRF research around 7.2 million people are forgoing meals, showers and heating, and 4.7 million are getting behind on their bills this winter.

A government spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “We know the best way out of poverty is through good work, better skills, and higher wages, and our network of Jobcentres continues to help millions, including parents, to access flexible job opportunities and higher-paid roles through job progression support.

“Latest figures show that there are 200,000 fewer children in absolute poverty after housing costs compared to 2019/20 and we are supporting millions of vulnerable families with direct Cost of Living Payments, on top of raising benefits by 10.1% in April.”

*Jack’s name has been changed to protect anonymity.