Why 2020 is a fitting year to start research into the impact of benefit changes on larger families

Over twenty years ago, in 1999, then Prime Minister Tony Blair made the historic
commitment to abolish child poverty by 2020. This ambitious pledge changed the nature of
the debate on poverty, leading to an apparent cross-party consensus on the issue: in 2006
David Cameron promised that his (more compassionate) Conservative Party would
recognise and act on relative poverty.

2020 has suddenly arrived, and the policy context feels markedly different. Child poverty
rates remain stubbornly high and are expected to grow further as reforms introduced by the
2015-2020 Conservative Government take full effect. Most notable here is the two-child
limit, which means most child-related support within the benefits system are only available
for the first two children in a household (with notable exemptions linked to multiple births,
kinship care and instances of rape). The two-child limit, alongside policies such as the
household benefits cap, are noteworthy not only because they will increase poverty but
because they explicitly break the longstanding link between needs and entitlements in the
British benefits system.

By their very design, both of these policies penalise larger families, and will
disproportionately affect single parent households and particular religious and ethnic
groups. Despite this, the policies are thought to be popular with the electorate. Politicians
defend their introduction by drawing on a narrative of ‘fairness’, arguing that people in
receipt of state benefits should be expected to make the same decisions about family size
and make up as those in (low-paid) employment.

It is against this background that we are embarking on an ambitious (and we believe timely)
three year study to better understand the consequences of the two-child limit and benefits
cap. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, we will combine quantitative and qualitative
approaches, as well as incorporating participatory methodologies, to ensure that we learn
from and engage with the expertise of experience on poverty and social security receipt. We
will use large-scale survey data to describe the profile of larger families, and to explore how
their poverty risk and poverty depth has changed over time. We will further employ creative
quantitative methods to explore the impact of these policies on parental mental health and
the self-reported wellbeing of children in affected families.

At the same time, we will walk alongside a small number of families in Bradford and London
as they navigate and cope with the consequences of the changed policy context. By
returning to the same families on three occasions, we will track changes over time, and in
particular explore how and whether these policies affect families’ decision making around
caring, parenting and employment. We will also explore how affected families respond to
and cope with the reduced financial support that these policies introduce (when compared
to the legacy system), and how these changes sit alongside other reforms to the benefit
system, most notably here Universal Credit.

This project also includes participatory elements; working with members of larger families
living in poverty to discuss policy recommendations, and to explore together the data which
emerges from the quantitative analyses. The Child Poverty Action Group will be working
with us throughout the project to help us to engage policymakers and to disseminate our
findings as widely as is possible.

By the end of this year, we should have been celebrating the eradication of child poverty, an
ambition which is now out of reach. Instead, we hope our project uses this moment to
reflect on the changing poverty risk of larger families, and the impact of policies that so
decidedly (and starkly) abolish the link between need and entitlement in our social security
system. That is the ambition and rationale behind this new project, which will address a key
gap in our understandings of recent welfare reforms.

Ruth Patrick
Aaron Reeves
Kitty Stewart