Poverty is not the same as food insecurity

9 April 2021
What was claimed

At the beginning of 2020 there were 4.3 million children growing up in poverty.

Our verdict

This is correct, according to data on relative poverty after housing costs. Other measures of poverty would show different figures.

What was claimed

These children live in families struggling to put food on the table.

Our verdict

The data shows 74% of these children live in ‘food secure’ households.

“In early 2020–just before our country went into lockdown–there were 4.3 million children growing up in poverty. Three children in every ten growing up in families that were struggling to pay the bills or put food on the table.”

In a speech to the NASUWT teaching union on 3 April, shadow education secretary Kate Green claimed that 4.3 million children are living in poverty, and in families that struggle to “put food on the table”. 

Although poverty is often linked to struggling to afford food, data collected by the government shows that these can be two distinct issues. Putting enough food on the table is a real struggle for many families, but not everyone classed as living in poverty also suffers from food insecurity.

According to the latest official data, there were 4.3 million children living in relative poverty in 2019/20. Of these, 26% (1.1 million) live in households classed as “food insecure”, roughly meaning that they do struggle to put food on the table. 

As we have written before, there are several different ways to measure poverty. The most commonly used measures are relative and absolute poverty.

Someone is counted as in relative low income (or in relative poverty) if their household income is below 60% of the national median average that year. This can be calculated both before and after housing costs. Absolute poverty looks at the number of people in households where the income is below 60% of the average median level in 2010/11, adjusted for inflation.

Ms Green said there were 4.3 million children in poverty at the start of 2020. Data published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) does show that, in the year to April 2020, 4.28 million children (30.7%) in the UK were classed as being in relative low income households after housing costs. 

Ms Green said these children were “growing up in families that were struggling to pay the bills or put food on the table.” However, this is not necessarily correct. 

What about food?

The DWP data comes from the annual Family Resources Survey, a representative survey of around 19,000 households in the UK. This survey now also asks families about their food security. 

It found that 87% of households in the UK had high food security, meaning they had “no problem, or anxiety about, consistently accessing adequate food”. A further 6% had marginal food security, and were also classed as being “food secure”. The remaining households were split between low food security and very low food security.

The data shows that, of the 4.3 million children in relative low income households in 2019/20, 3.2 million (74%) were classed as being “food secure”. 

Of these children, 2.6 million had “high” food security and 0.6 million had “marginal” food security, meaning their families had “problems at times, or anxiety about, accessing adequate food, but the quality, variety, and quantity of their food intake were not substantially reduced” and so are considered to be food secure. 

This measure does not capture things like the nutritional value of the food, and previous research has suggested many families in the UK may not be able afford the extra costs of more healthy eating. However, it does mean that it is incorrect to say that all 4.3 million children in relative poverty live in families which are “struggling to... put food on the table”. 

Ms Green’s office told Full Fact that this line in the speech had been rhetorical to include examples of what being in poverty means for children and families affected, and was not meant to suggest that every one of these children is facing food insecurity or going hungry.

The Family Resources Survey does not collect data on the number of households who struggle to pay bills. Poverty is also measured by the Social Metrics Commission, which has said that before the Covid crisis, nearly three in ten people in poverty were in families that were behind on paying the bills.

Ms Green also said that, in the last 10 years, the number of children growing up in poverty increased by almost 700,000. But, keeping to the same measure she was using previously, the data shows that the number of children in relative poverty after housing costs has risen by more like 400,000 - from 3.87 million in 2009/10 to 4.28 million in 2019/20.

In percentage terms, this is a 1.3 percentage point increase from 29.4% of children in 2009/10 to 30.7% in 2019/20.  

Ms Green’s office told Full Fact that the increase of 700,000 came from using the figures from 2010/11, rather than 2009/10, when 3.6 million children were classed as in relative poverty.

We’ve written before about how poverty statistics can be used to make political points.

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