Families with a traditional ‘breadwinner’ model, where one parent (usually the father) goes out to work while the other stays at home to care for children, are the largest group of households with children living in poverty, according to research published today (13 November) from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).

The two reports published today (by IPPR and NatCen) show almost a third of families with children living in poverty are single breadwinner couple families. There are half as many dual earning families living in poverty.

According to figures from NatCen for JRF, among the 1.3 million families with children living in poverty:

  • 31% (400,000 families) are couple families with a single breadwinner;
  • 16% (210,000 families) are dual earning couples;
  • 8% (105,000 families) are working lone parents;
  • The remaining families are either workless single parents or workless couples.

The report by IPPR points out the number of single breadwinner couple families has been falling in recent decades, largely the result of social change, with more women wanting to work – but in some cases women need or want to work to make ends meet for their family. The report highlights the need to support more dual earning couples and to enable lone parents to work, or to work more hours, in order to reduce poverty.

The report calls for a mix of measures to support parents who to want share work and childcare, rather than pursue the traditional single breadwinner model. It makes three recommendations:

Allowing second-earners to keep more of their earnings

Allowing second earners – usually mothers – in low-income couple families to keep more of their earnings before means-tested benefits are withdrawn will make it more financially rewarding to work and boost household income. It would also complement efforts to raise wages among low-earning mothers, since they would be able to keep a larger share of any extra pay. Under Universal Credit, as soon as a second earner enters work 65p of every £1 earned will be lost to withdrawn benefits. This could affect 900,000 potential second earners.

Expanding the provision of affordable childcare

The cost of childcare is a major barrier to mothers entering work or working more hours. Good quality childcare and education can boost early child development, offering some protection against future poverty. The report calls for reform of the £7 billion ‘patchwork’ childcare provision – a mix of free entitlements, tax credits and vouchers funded by the Government – and moves towards a more universal system of low cost or free provision.

Make it easier for fathers to spend time with the family and share caring responsibilities

Paid family leave allows parents to spend time with young children while protecting incomes, helps keep mothers in the labour market and increases fathers’ involvement in family life. However, family leave is badly paid in the UK and too short for fathers. The report calls for more generous paternity leave to help create a system where parents share caring and earning responsibilities.

Katie Schmuecker, Policy and Research Manager at JRF, said: “The traditional family model where one parent – usually dad – goes out to work and supports his family does not offer a guaranteed route out of poverty in Britain today. Our low pay jobs market means many families that are reliant on a single breadwinner find it hard to make ends meet.

“Measures like the Living Wage, supporting people to progress into better jobs and ensuring it always pays to work more will all help increase household incomes. So too will helping more families to become dual earning households. This means we have to tackle the barriers that prevent people that want to work from doing so – such as unaffordable childcare, and the lack of financial incentive to work. Otherwise many parents and their children may find themselves trapped in poverty with little prospect of bettering their situation.”

Kayte Lawton, Senior Research Fellow at IPPR, said: “Many fathers work long hours, making it harder for them get involved in family life and more difficult for more mothers in poorer families to work. Childcare enables parents with young children to work, particularly mothers, but remains expensive for many poor families and needs to be made more affordable. Despite some improvements in the jobs market, many mothers can only access poorly paid, part-time jobs because of their childcare responsibilities. Addressing the cost of childcare would enable more mothers to work, boosting household incomes and helping tackle in-work poverty.”

Matt Barnes, Research Analyst at NatCen, said: “Our report found the most common type of household living in poverty is couple families where the father is the breadwinner and the mother is looking after children. It is striking that so many families in poverty contain adults who are working. But for people to increase the amount they work in order to boost their family income, more hours need to be available: the current problem with the labour market is the high rates of underemployment. In addition it is difficult for parents to balance working and caring for children.”