Article updated 10 January 2022
Rises in child poverty fuelled by benefit cuts was associated with more than 10,000 more children being taken into care between 2015 and 2020, a new study has estimated.
The research, which is currently being peer-reviewed, suggests 10,356 more children living in English local authority areas became looked after than would have been the case had poverty levels remained at 2015 levels.
It also estimates that almost 22,000 additional children were placed on child protection plans, and almost 52,000 began an episode of being in need, over the same timescale.
Researchers said the findings added to “growing evidence of the contributory causal nature of the relationship between child poverty and children’s social care involvement, much of it from the US”.
‘Double burden on poorer areas’
The study found increases in both child poverty and children’s services interventions disproportionately affected poorer boroughs, particularly in the North East but also the North West, parts of the Midlands and some coastal areas further south. It said this placed a “double burden” of deprivation on these places.
“Policies that move children into poverty may trigger cascading inequalities through child protection systems and beyond, as poverty clusters with the very childhood adversities it produces, giving rise to further inequalities in health, life and death,” the paper warned.
“Places that experience the double-burden of increased child poverty and numbers of children entering care must shoulder the wider societal costs of children’s impaired life-chances, in education, health, criminal justice, and economic contexts,” it added.
Extra £1.4bn cost to public purse
The study, which its authors said was the first to longitudinally track the relationship between child poverty and entry into the care system, drew on new datasets published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
The research team’s modelling showed that within English local authorities, between 2015 and 2020, a 1% increase in child poverty was associated with an additional five children entering care per 100,000 population.
The report said the 10,356 additional children to have entered care was equivalent to 8.1% of the total number over that period, at an estimated total cost of £1.4bn.
Identical models showed that the same 1% increase in poverty rates would result in an extra 19 per 100,000 children being made subject to a child protection plan while an additional 52 per 100,000 began an episode of need.
Researchers estimated that between 2015 and 2020, 6.7% of all new child protection plans and 3.2% of episodes of need were due to rising child poverty.
They found that rates of child in need interventions linked less robustly to increases in poverty than higher-level actions.
‘Risk-averse child protection system’
“This raises concerns voiced elsewhere about an underfunded, risk-averse child protection system, increasingly focussed on acute interventions at the expense of prevention,” the study warned.
It also cited previous studies warning that social workers sometimes struggled to engage with poverty – characterised as the “wallpaper of practice” experienced by families they work with. In 2019, a British Association of Social Workers report urged social workers to focus on people’s socio-economic rights and do more to avoid stigmatising families.
“Local area policymakers may redouble efforts [to change things] by embedding poverty-informed policies in children’s services and multiagency partnerships,” the study said.
‘Tackling poverty key to managing rise in care population’
Lead researcher Davara Bennett, PhD student at Liverpool University, said: “We know that there is a relationship between poverty and care entry. But the nature of that relationship has remained the subject of some controversy, particularly in the UK. Our study presents evidence that rising child poverty is likely fuelling care entry and other statutory interventions in childhood.
“The message for policy is clear: poverty-alleviation is key to tackling the unsustainable and costly rise in the population of children in care. The good news is that child poverty is highly amenable to policy intervention. Merely restoring and extending the universal credit uplift and reversing cuts to welfare benefits, including the two-child limit and lowered benefit cap, would lift millions of children out of poverty, creating the conditions for better childhoods, and improving health outcomes across the lifecourse.
“The bad news is that, currently, welfare policy is considered outside the scope of the ongoing Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in England. Our research suggests that, without the wider scope, this potentially transformative review is unlikely to achieve its ambitious aims.”
‘Tendency to obscure trends in child poverty’
Nationally, rates of child poverty, defined by children living in households taking in less than 60% of the median income, rose from 17% in 2014 to 23% in 2020 before housing costs were factored in. After housing costs, 31% were in poverty in 2020.
Despite wider evidence linking families’ socioeconomic conditions to child welfare and child protection interventions, the report said poor-quality data and other related factors had hindered analysis in the UK.
“At national level, there has been a tendency to obscure the reality of trends in child poverty, and a reluctance to acknowledge the relationship between poverty and care entry,” the report said, adding that the government should set renewed child poverty targets and reversing the dozens of cuts made to benefits over the past decade.
In response to the research, Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Charlotte Ramsden said: “One in three children in England are living in poverty today, their experiences can often be overlooked and their voices go unheard. It means cold homes, overcrowding, hunger and stress which can lead to family breakdown. It means charities stepping in to fill the gaps left by the state and schools feeding pupils and their families over the summer.
“This is simply unacceptable. ADCS continues to call on government to implement a child poverty reduction strategy.”
About the research
The research was carried out by academics from Liverpool and Huddersfield universities. It used government data on the annual rates of children under 16 being taken into care, children under 18 being subject to a child protection plan and children under 16 beginning an episode of need in 147 local authorities from 2015-20, and the proportion of children under 16 living in families with an income less than 60% of the median.
It then used statistical analyses to estimate the contribution of trends in child poverty to trends in the annual rate of looked-after children, children subject to child protection plans and those starting an episode of need.
It was funded by organisations including the UK government-financed National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) School for Public Health Research.