How many children in Northern Ireland live in poverty? Dr Julie-Ann Maney, a paediatrician who works at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, wrote an article on this topic, claiming that one third of children in Northern Ireland live in poverty. Her claim was based on projections in a report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, published in 2013.

We found more recent data from the Department for Communities that said 24% of children lived in relative poverty (and 21% in absolute poverty), in 2018/19. The editor of RCPCH Insight (the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s online magazine) has subsequently updated the article.

What is living in poverty?

In the UK and in other countries, there are two primary measurements of poverty (at 12:00): relative poverty and absolute poverty.

Relative poverty is whether your household has an income below 60% of the median or middle income in your country. (Northern Ireland poverty rates are measured against the UK median.) This is a measure of whether those in the lowest income households are keeping pace with the growth of incomes in the population as a whole. This tells us what’s happening to people at the bottom, relative to those in the middle. (The Child Poverty Act 2010 sets the 60% threshold; other countries use different levels, often 40%, 50% or 60%.)

Absolute poverty is whether your household has an income below 60% of the inflation-adjusted UK median income in 2010/11. This is a measure of whether those in the lowest income households are seeing their incomes rise in real terms.

It’s important to appreciate the difference between relative and absolute poverty measurements, because politicians and others sometimes select the one which best suits their argument.

For example, during an economic recession, middle incomes may fall while those living with low incomes may see no change. Relatively, some low income households may find themselves with more than the 60% level of the now lower median income. Therefore, during a recession, the absolute poverty measurement can be more informative — can low income households afford more or less?

Contrast that with a period of economic growth, where lower income households may be able to afford more, with all incomes rising. However, the absolute poverty measurement won’t tell us so much about income levels relative to the middle (in other words, income inequality) — are they catching up or falling behind? Thus, during growth, the relative poverty measurement may be preferable.

Alternative measurement of poverty

An alternative measurement of poverty in the UK is produced by the Social Metrics Commission (SMC), an independent group of experts who aim to develop metrics through which poverty can be better understood within the UK. Their measurement includes items such as housing, childcare, and disability costs; sharing costs within households; a three-year rolling average of weekly household financial resources available; and assessments of the depth and persistence of poverty.

What is the level of child poverty in Northern Ireland?

The simple definition of child poverty is someone under the age of 18 living in a household that is below the poverty line, using the measurements of relative poverty and absolute poverty.

Source: Northern Ireland Poverty Bulletin (2018/19), Supporting Data Tables; Social Metrics Commission (2020), (Table 1_7)

The Department for Communities (DfC) publishes regular bulletins of poverty statistics in Northern Ireland. The most recent Northern Ireland Poverty Bulletin, covering 2018/19, says that 24% of children were living in households in relative poverty, an estimated 107,000 children. For the same time period, 21% of children were living in households in absolute poverty, an estimated 92,000 children. The SMC measurement indicated that 29% of children were living in households in poverty in 2018/19.

The chart above shows figures for relative and absolute child poverty (before housing costs), as well as the SMC’s measurement, over the last decade.

UK regional figures for child poverty are published by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Social Metrics Commission. Note that the DWP was planning to publish “experimental statistics” for the UK using the SMC measurement in the second half of 2020.

What is the child poverty policy in Northern Ireland?

The Northern Ireland Government’s Child Poverty Strategy was published in March 2016 and runs until May 2022. The strategy incorporates aspects from the UK Child Poverty Act (2010), the Northern Ireland Executive’s Child Poverty Strategy (2011-14), and a public consultation, Delivering Social Change for Children and Young People (2014).

The UK Child Poverty Act (2010) has two headline targets:

  1. by 2020, less than 10% of children should live in relative poverty; and
  2. by 2020, less than 5% of children should live in absolute poverty.

Note that in 2015 the UK Government abolished targets for child poverty, replacing them with a statutory duty to report on measures of worklessness and educational attainment. The Northern Ireland Executive continues to use the UK Child Poverty Act’s measurements of relative and absolute poverty.

The Executive’s Child Poverty Strategy aims to reduce the number of children in poverty and reduce the impact of poverty in children. Proposed actions include improving the economic well-being of parents, families, and households with children, looking at material deprivation, worklessness, and homelessness. For children, the strategy contains actions to improve children’s educational attainment, health, and environment to improve their life chances.

So while the strategy will use relative and absolute poverty measurements as headline indicators, it also includes a dozen others, within a framework of four defined outcomes. This reflects the complexity in measuring and addressing the issue of child poverty. DfC’s annual report assesses progress towards targets.

Child poverty and COVID

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting child poverty in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK? The pandemic highlighted a fact about statistics — the time lag from collection to publication of data. For example, the Northern Ireland Poverty Bulletin that will cover years 2020/21 may not be published until Spring 2022 (based on previous schedule). The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recognises this deficiency of timely data and is looking at different data sources as well as developing products to provide timely insights.  Meanwhile, the Social Metrics Commission has published its Poverty and COVID-19 report (video), which incorporated its analysis of polling by YouGov (March and May 2020), and includes information on the effects of COVID-19 and poverty in Northern Ireland, but not on children specifically.

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