Does the UK have the most children in jobless households in the EU?

Published: 13th Sep 2012

Yesterday Iain Duncan Smith delivered some striking figures in a debate at the House of Commons on universal credit and welfare reform.

Here's what he said:

"Even before the recession there were over 4 million people on out-of-work benefits and 1.4 million people who have never worked at all. Things then got a lot worse because of the recession. The inheritance that we received included 5 million people on out-of-work benefits, youth unemployment already high and more children in workless households in this country than in the rest of the EU - that is a staggering thought. And that came after years of growth and plenty, which the previous government wasted."

Overall we have found that out of the four claims being made here, one is not entirely correct.

1.4 million people have never worked?

Let's take them in order. "1.4 million people in the country have never worked at all". This is in fact true, though Iain Duncan Smith didn't go on to specify how many of them are currently engaged in full-time education. Although the data doesn't provide a breakdown of how many of them are students who have never worked, the best evidence we have is that there are 83,000 student households in the country. 

It is worth noting that these figures may be slightly dated, as they were released by the Department of Work and Pension back in 2010. In the absence of any more up-to-date data we can't know how this might have changed in the intervening period, although it is interesting to note that the number of 'never-worked' households has decreased slightly since 2010.

How many people are on out-of-work benefits?

Iain Duncan Smith was once again correct. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) recorded that 4.9 million claimed one of the 'key out-of-work' benefits in May 2010. This includes Jobseeker's Allowance, Incapacity Benefit/Employment and Support Allowance, Severe Disablement Allowance, Income Support and Pension Credit.

The number had fallen by 300,00 by May 2011. For comparison, the pre-recession figure (August 2008) was 4.4 million.

More kids in workless households than any other EU country?

Finally, in the midst of an unprecedented crisis within the EU, which looks to be hitting the south of Europe the hardest, can Britain really have recorded the highest number of children living in jobless households?

Looking again at the ONS data confirms that 3.7 million households in the UK are considered workless. Overall, 1.75 million children are living in workless households, which is about 15.1% of UK kids.

But does this actually mean the UK has the greatest number children in jobless households within the EU? To answer this we have to turn to Eurostat data.

This isn't directly comparable to the ONS's figures: while Eurostat count children up to the age of 17 in their figures, the ONS only looks at kids under 16.

According to Eurostat, in 2011 17.3% of British children lived in jobless households. Despite the figures not being up to date with the most recent developments of the euro crisis, it is worthy of notice how Greece, Spain and Italy (respectively 9.2%, 11.9% and 8.3%) have at present fairly low proportions, comparatively speaking.

So can we claim that "there are more children in workless households in this country than the rest of the EU"? Not quite; according to Eurostat, Ireland reports a much higher rate at 20.2%. Ireland is of course a much smaller nation, so in terms of the raw numbers the UK - the third most populous country in Europe - does hit the summit.

So, what do we make of this?
Overall, most of the claims stand up to closer inspection - however, there is one area where Iain Duncan Smith could have been clearer.

In particular, while UK does have the dubious honour of topping the EU league table when it comes to the number of children living in workless households, it would've been fair to include that, proportionately speaking, Ireland pips us to the post. We could also add that it isn't entirely clear from his phrasing whether he is comparing the UK to the other EU countries individually or collectively - clearly only the former holds water.


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