New research finds two-child limit 'is taking a heavy toll on family life'

By agency reporter
June 26, 2019

The first detailed research on the impact of the two-child limit in tax credits and universal credit, All Kids Count: the impact of the two-child limit after two years, reveals the scale of suffering in families affected by the policy, with parents reporting that they are being forced to cut back on fresh food for children, unable to cover essential utility bills, accruing debt and being forced to withdraw older children from activities like swimming lessons and school trips. 

The research, published today (26 June 2019) in a report by Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England, with contributions from Women’s Aid, the Refugee Council, and Turn2us, documents the toll the policy is taking on family life in low-income households. It includes new quantitative analysis by IPPR which projects that one million children who already live in poverty will be pushed further below the poverty line by the time universal credit is fully rolled out in 2023/24, as a result of the two-child policy.  

The two-child limit – which mostly affects working families  – restricts the child element in universal credit and tax credits, worth £2,780 per year, to the first two children.  Third or subsequent children born before the policy came into effect in April 2017 are exempt.

The research published today draws on a survey of more than 430 families affected by the policy and 16 in-depth follow-up interviews with a representative sample of survey respondents (see case studies below and in the full report). Women’s Aid and the Refugee Council provided additional findings from interviews with survivors of domestic abuse and refugees.

The quantitative research also projected:

  • By  2023/24, 1.8 million children will be affected by the two-child limit (including siblings of third or subsequent children born after April 2017)
  • Previous IPPR analysis for Child Poverty Action Group found 300,000 children will move into poverty because of the policy.

Parents responding to the survey reported:

Having to  cut back on essentials (95 per cent said the policy had this effect)  

One (anonymous) parent said: “I can’t afford the full rent if I put gas and electric on. Food is a minimum. I’m relying on others.”

Another reported: “I couldn’t afford inhalers this week because I’m more concerned about my children having food. Just praying I can make my inhalers last before I run out”.

88 per cent said the policy has affected their ability to pay for food.

Lisa has four children.  Her husband works full time.  She said: “I don’t buy foods that I would like to buy, just food that’s close to nothing… I would have liked to get them fruit. I can’t remember the last time I made a fresh dinner, it’s all stuff I’ve got in my freezer”

Another said: “My partner become ill and unable to work due to disability and I’m now at home having to care for him and our four children. Me and my partner are literally not eating at all during the day to feed the children.”

Using credit cards, borrowing from family and incurring debt in order to cover essentials

One parent said: “I have amassed a huge amount of rent arrears because I can’t afford to feed my children AND pay my rent.”

Paula (not her real name) a single mum of three said: “I didn’t have any credit cards this time last year. I’ve got two now and they’re maxed out… [I’m using them to] cover daily things and about £30 a week just to pay for his special milk and bread’. I’m in a good bit of debt now, it’s not possible to make it work at the end of the month” (mother whose young son has a health condition requiring a special diet]

Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: “Here in the UK, we believe that every child should have the best start in life. This means access to free health care, a good education, and a childhood free from poverty. We wouldn’t turn away a sick child from our hospitals or stop them going to school and yet the two-child limit denies families the support they need from our social security system when they experience tough times, trapping kids in poverty. We need to help children thrive, by supporting parents to raise happy, healthy children – especially during the first years of a child’s life, when foundations are laid for their future development. It’s right to support families when they need it most. Our government should lift the two-child limit and help all children to thrive.” 

The Rt Rev Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, said: “We believe that children are a blessing, not a burden – and that a third or fourth child is no less precious than the first or second. The Government’s two-child limit goes against this fundamental principle and is pushing many families and children into poverty. It is simply not right that some children get support and others don’t. The two-child limit must be lifted as part of a concerted effort to reverse the rise in child poverty.”

Today’s report is published as  over 50 organisations – including  the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, British Pregnancy Advisory Service , the Children’ Society and Trussell Trust –  launch a campaign  to abolish the two-child limit.

Parents responding to the survey also reported:

Not being able to  afford children’s activities:

Paula said: “Both kids have stopped their swimming lessons, we can’t afford it. Amy has had to finish her football and Corey his basketball… she was at football six days a week and she misses it a lot. What makes it harder is they don’t understand why they could get something [before] and now they can’t”. (children’s names also changed)

Sam (not his real name) a dad of three working full time reported: “It affects them [the children], you know. Creating memories  – we can’t, we have no money. For holidays we’ve got no money to treat them to anything nice… just getting a round of ice creams in the park is expensive… We can’t take them to any clubs or activities or anything unless we beg, steal or borrow”

Parental stress and worry about money at times leading to family conflict:

One parent said: “It has caused so much stress on our family that it is looking like we are headed for divorce. Instead of enjoying the birth of our baby, we have dealt with hardship and having to scrape together for meals. Borrowing money from family for milk and nappies…We had to borrow money for steriliser bottles, pram, cot, everything you need for a baby… We are at an end in our family life and relationship because of the stress and hardship the limit has caused for us.”

Most of the survey respondents were working or had worked:

Paula said: “I feel like I’m being punished, and I’ve worked most of my life. And the one time that I did need a proper hand, and a bit of help, I’m just getting penalised for it.’

A significant number of the women interviewed had had an unplanned pregnancy (often because contraception had failed) and some had felt obliged to consider a termination:

Janet (not her real name) a mum of three who is pregnant with her fourth child and whose husband works full time, said: “I  tried to go through a termination but we’re in turmoil now thinking how are we gonna cope ……It’s a constant worry, you’re constantly writing stuff down and checking how much money you’ve got”.

Parents were clear about how their children – and the family overall - would benefit if child allowances were reinstated for third and subsequent children:

Paula said: “The money would give my children a sense of normality. It would mean the world… It would mean they could go back to their clubs…. It would get them out socialising and being with their friends and seeing family without me counting the pennies”.

Alva, a single mum of three children in Northern Ireland said: “I could put my little girl into a playgroup before school. Stuff like that… to help with her own little personality”

Domestic abuse:

Interviews conducted by Women’s Aid and Refuge suggest the two-child limit risks making it harder for women experiencing domestic abuse to leave their abuser and increasing the hardship they and their children face if they do manage to leave.  Respondents to a Refuge survey of 65 refuge workers, Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVA) and outreach workers highlighted the way the policy affected survivors of domestic abuse and was used by perpetrators to continue their abuse:

One survey respondent said: “Women have felt more trapped […] as there was no available money to help them move and leave.”

Women’s Aid interviews with survivors of domestic abuse also show the traumatic and unworkable nature of the ‘non-consensual exception’ to the two-child limit (which requires women who have conceived a third or subsequent child as a result of non-consensual sex and who want to claim exemption from the policy, to complete an application form which must be corroborated by a third party professional).

One survivor of abuse felt forced to return to her abuser because the third child she was carrying would not be eligible for a child allowance.

Sabrina [not her real name] had been experiencing abuse at the hands of her husband for almost a decade when she and her two young children came to a Women’s Aid member refuge. Whilst in the refuge, Sabrina discovered that she was pregnant. Sabrina wept at the news – tears of anxiety and worry about how she was going to cope financially when she eventually moved out of the refuge. She couldn’t bear the thought of having to tell the government how the child was conceived – out of abuse and fear – in order to get the money she was entitled to. Soon, she packed her family’s bag with the few belongings they had and returned to the home she had shared with her abuser, utterly defeated.


The Refugee Council highlights how the financial effects of the two-child limit not only undermine refugee parents’ ability to provide material basics for their children but also reduce refugee children’s access to school activities that could help them to integrate and build social connections with their peers.

One refugee couple have had to stop swimming lessons for their eldest child, though she loves them, in order to cover essentials for the baby. Another refugee couple said: “We just try to pay the bills and buy food because that’s all we can afford, that’s what we have to prioritise,” noting that nutritious foods are outside their budget and that they no longer have a TV to cut costs.  In addition, their oldest son is "passionate" about football. “But, since the baby was born, we can’t afford the fees for the club which he used to go to every Saturday.”

Government data shows 59 per cent of families affected by the two-child limit are in work. Analysis for the report shows that for most affected families it would be impossible to make up the loss of the child element of tax credits or universal credit by working more hours: 

  • a couple who have three children, one under two, who incur travel and childcare costs, and have one partner working full time for the ‘national living wage’ (‘NLW’)  and one partner not working in order to care for the youngest child, would have to have the non-working partner move into a job of 31 hours per week to make up the loss
  • a single parent with three children working 16 hrs for the ‘NLW’ and incurring travel and childcare costs would not be able to compensate for the loss of support, even if she were to increase her hours to 50 per week.

Government statistics show families with young children and those with three or more children already have an elevated poverty risk. The poverty rate for families where the youngest child is aged 0-4 is 35 per cent, compared with 23 to 26 per cent for families with older children.  Families with three or more children have a poverty rate of 43 per cent compared to 24 per cent for one and two-child families.

The two-child limit restricts the child element in universal credit and tax credits worth £2,780 per year, to the first two children. Before 6 April 2017, it was payable for all children in low-income families to protect them against poverty. Third or subsequent children born before the policy was introduced are exempted.  To date an estimated 160,000 families with 600,000 children have been affected by the policy.  Eventually more than 800,000 households with over three million children will are likely to be affected.  Fifty five per cent of families affected have three children.

* Read All Kids Count: the impact of the two-child limit after two years here

* Child Poverty Action Group http://www.cpag.org.uk/


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