Are children from single-parent families living in poverty?


One of the new proposed indicators of child poverty is whether the young person lives in a single parent family. However, psychologist Karen Sullivan says the issue is not as simple as that.

So the UK is changing the way it is going to measure child poverty. A consultation has been launched on a new range of potential indicators, including family stability, worklessness and quality of schooling (read SecEd’s report here).

Among the poverty measures proposed by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith is a focus on family breakdown and those children living in lone parent families. Let’s put this into perspective. In 2007 Unicef published a table of 21 economically advanced countries, with 40 indicators that might affect the wellbeing of children, including poverty, family relationships, health and safety, education and children’s own sense of happiness. At the bottom of the table was the UK, suggesting that children here are the unhappiest in the industrialised world.

Four years later, a second report from the same body had similar findings. The result, according to the Children’s Society, is that at any given time, one in 11 children in the UK aged between eight and 15 has a low sense of wellbeing.

While I agree that a stable home is paramount to the happiness of children, I would suggest that Mr Duncan-Smith is way off the mark. First of all, it does not take two parents to create a stable home. It’s ideal, yes, but there are plenty of single-parent families that are far more successful in providing love, support and quality time than those with two parents.

Second, this approach ignores completely what I would consider to be middle-class neglect – children with two working parents who are left to their own devices or raised by child-minders, nannies and other carers who simply will not have the same emotion or deep-seated interest invested in the process of bringing them up. Two parents and money do not equate to happy children. Physical poverty can be measured; emotional poverty is much harder to define and to gauge, but I would suggest that it relates to many factors outside living with birth parents. 

First of all, we have government after government who cannot make up their mind about the best way to educate children, over-testing them and putting them under considerable, unnecessary stress by overloading their childhoods with examinations, requirements and targets. Children’s playtime, music, sport and art has been stripped back to the bare minimum, despite the fact that one of the key, UN-recognised rights of children is time for rest and play. 

As educators, you will be well aware of the fact that many children who fall below the poverty line are not emotionally poor; they have one or more parents who support them and care for them, sending them to school beautifully turned out and full of excitement at the prospect of learning. Their home life is often more stable than that of families with two parents who fill their children’s time with expensive educational activities and toys, but little emotional security or time to play. 

Increasingly, the latter group is expecting schools and teachers to step in and parent, and these high expectations put even more pressure on vulnerable children, creating the kind of emotional poverty that has begun to define our children. 

The quality of schooling is also suggested as a measure of poverty. When are we going to wake up and understand that educational achievement isn’t everything. Of course it’s crucial for children to read, write, understand maths and so on, however, I would argue that it is the educational experience that is paramount – that we produce generations of happy, fulfilled, stimulated and curious children who love to learn. The many hours they spend in the classroom comprise a good proportion of their childhoods, and these should be directed not just to accomplishment, but a well-rounded, satisfying experience.

Poverty abounds in the UK, and teachers see it every day in the classroom. Not just financial poverty but genuine emotional poverty that is far more insidious and dangerous in the long run. Growing up with two parents isn’t going to change that particular ill.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert.


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