Free Meals Are Set Markers Of Deprivation
According to research, children in England who receive free school meals earn less than their peers, even when they achieve the same qualifications, with half earning £17,000 or less at the age of 30.
Analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals a persistent earnings gap between those who grew up in poorer households and those from wealthier ones.
The gap can be explained largely by access to higher education – disadvantaged children are much less likely to go to university than their better-off classmates. Just 9% of young people eligible for free school meals entered higher education aged 18-19 in 2016/17, compared with 54% of those not eligible.
Those from poorer backgrounds earn less than their more affluent peers, even among those who attend university. The earnings gap between the two groups of graduates was £5,500 a year at age 29.
The ONS said its findings should be “a cause for concern” and that addressing the issue would require “a concerted effort from a wide range of organisations and individuals over many years”.
While free school meals are no longer means-tested in England, they are still used as a marker of deprivation – about 1.3 million children were eligible for them in 2016/17.
The research is based on data from the Millennium Cohort Study, tracking the lives of 19,000 people born in 2000-02 from when they were babies to adulthood.
The report found that among those who had not gone to university, those who had been eligible for free school meals earned about £1,000 a year less at age 30 than those who were not.
However, the earnings gap between the two groups was much larger among graduates: those from poorer backgrounds earned about £5,500 a year less than their more affluent peers.
The ONS said the findings showed that a disadvantage follows a “disadvantage in childhood in adulthood”. It added that while free school meals were no longer means-tested in England, they were still used as a marker of deprivation – about 1.3 million children were eligible for them in 2016/17.
The report also found that the earnings gap between men and women who had grown up in poverty was much wider than those who had not. While men from poorer backgrounds earned about £2,000 a year less than their better-off counterparts, women from disadvantaged backgrounds earned about £7,000 less.
The ONS said this was “likely because women are more likely to take time out of paid work to care for children or other family members”.
Commenting on the findings, Matt Huffman, head of labour market statistics at the ONS, said: “This research shows that growing up in a household where you were eligible for free school meals has an impact on your earnings in adulthood, even if you go on to achieve the same qualifications as your better-off peers.
“While many factors affect earnings, this report should be a cause for concern. Reducing these inequalities will require a concerted effort from various organisations and individuals over many years.”
Ministers said they were committed to tackling poverty’s “root causes” and would write their plans in a green paper later this year.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “We are committed to building a fairer society where everyone can get on in life regardless of their background, and already our welfare reforms are helping families across the country to improve their lives.
“We also know there is more to do, which is why we are publishing a green paper later this year to set out our plans on tackling the root causes of poverty.”
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