Families with a disabled member are more likely to be in poverty. This is particularly true for families where an adult is disabled. Overall, 42% of children in relative poverty in 2017-20 were in a family with at least one disabled person. Around three-quarters of these are also in at least one other priority group for tackling child poverty.
Being in work is not enough to stay out of poverty – around two-fifths of children in relative poverty with a disabled family member have at least one parent in work. Still, disabled parents are far less likely to be employed compared to non-disabled parents, and those who are employed tend to work less hours. Disabled parents are more likely to be under employed, in terms of both hours and skills. For many disabled parents, or parents with a disabled family member, their health needs or caring responsibilities mean that it is not realistic for them to undertake employment. However many who are not currently in employment would like to be – but they face significant barriers to accessing employment. These include difficulties with transport, inaccessible job adverts and application processes, discrimination, lack of flexible working, lack of adequate support and effects on benefits.
Gaining skills and qualifications is a key step to finding and maintaining well-paid work as an adult. However disabled parents are much more likely to have low or no qualifications. Disabled pupils tend to have lower attendance at school and are more likely to be excluded.
The availability of high-quality, flexible and affordable services such as childcare and transport are important enablers for parents to access employment – as well as reducing costs of living. Families with long-term conditions find it harder to afford childcare. Some prefer to use informal childcare, while for others formal childcare that can meet their children's needs is not available. Disabled adults in low-income families have similar levels of transport satisfaction to non-disabled adults, but families with a disabled member do face specific transport barriers.
It is generally recognised that disabled people face higher costs of living than non-disabled people. Extra costs may include specialist equipment and home adaptations, specialist therapies, specialist toys and play equipment, paid-for care and increased transport and energy costs. Poverty rates do not generally account for this, but when disability benefits (designed to compensate for additional costs) are subtracted from household incomes, child poverty rates for children in households with a disabled person rise sharply. Levels of unmanageable debt are small but comparable between households with disabled members and those without, but families where someone has a long-term condition are less likely to have savings.
Social security is a complex picture between devolved and reserved agencies. We know that disabled families experience a range of difficulties with benefits currently delivered by the UK social security system. These include a lack of advice and support, lack of trust in the system, and a complex, inflexible or unsuitable application process. Scottish Government is currently working to address these problems for when disability benefits begin being delivered in Scotland. Due to their additional reliance on benefits, families with a disabled member are disproportionally impacted by cuts or changes to eligibility criteria in benefits or support services.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had wide-ranging impacts on disabled people's lives, beyond the significant direct and indirect health and wellbeing impacts. The pandemic appears to have had a worse impact on disabled people's employment – exacerbating pre-existing barriers for some people – and school closures have been particularly challenging for families with a disabled member. Many low-income families with disabled children feel that formal and informal support for their children has decreased since the pandemic began. Overall, these families seem to have been disproportionally exposed to negative financial impacts, and food insecurity has been exacerbated.
There is no single obvious lever for tackling child poverty among disabled families, with each individual family's circumstances being highly unique and requiring a tailored package to meet their needs. However, stability combined with flexibility in work, care, support and income packages appears to be key.
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