Households, families and benefit units



The term ‘household’ has an agreed definition that is used in all surveys and analyses.

Household: a group of people living at the same address who share common housekeeping or a living room. In other words, everyone who lives behind the same 'front door'.

Many statistics naturally relate to households rather than to individuals.  For example, whilst it is individuals who are mugged or not, it is households who are burgled or not and it is households who have home contents insurance or not.

It is also household income rather than individual income which is used when analysing whether an individual is in income poverty or not – see choice of low-income thresholds.

From an analytic perspective, however, problems arise when one wants to look at how a particular statistics varies by household type.  This is because there are an infinite number of household types.  Some surveys, such as the 2001 Census, deal with this by defining a catchall ‘complex household’ type to group together all the uncommon types of household.  So, whilst a lone parent living with his/her dependent children would be put into a ‘lone parent’ household type, a lone parent living with his/her dependent children plus a lodger would be put into a ‘complex household’ household type.

This method is, however, less than satisfactory because so many people live in ‘complex households’.  For example, the Family Resources Survey estimates that around a quarter of the population live in ‘complex households’.  In reaction, most of the surveys also group people by ‘family’ or the related concept of ‘benefit unit’.

'Benefit units'

The term ‘benefit unit’ has an agreed definition.

Benefit unit: an adult plus their spouse (if applicable) plus any dependent children they are living with.

In this definition:

  • In using the term ‘spouse’, no distinction is made between husbands/wives and cohabitees.
  • A child is classified as ‘dependent’ if either they are under the age of 16 or if they are aged 16 to 18, unmarried and in full-time education up to and including A level standard (or Highers in Scotland).

The important point about this definition is that adults other than spouses are classified as separate benefit units even if they are related.  So, for example, a young adult living with their parents would count as one ‘household’ but two ‘benefit units’.  Putting this another way, every household is comprised of one or more benefit units.

For an analytic perspective, the great advantage of benefit units is that there is only a small of possible benefit unit types.  More specifically, a benefit unit is:

  • Either a single adult or a couple.
  • Either has or does not have dependent children.
  • Either has or does not have someone of pensionable age.

In other words, there are only 8 types of benefit unit.

Furthermore, a benefit unit can only have 6 basic work statuses, namely:

  • All working full-time.
  • All working part-time.
  • No one working.
  • One working full-time and the other (if applicable) working part-time.
  • One working full-time and the other (if applicable) not working.
  • One working part-time and the other (if applicable) not working.


In most surveys, the term ‘family’ is simply used as a user-friendly term for ‘benefit unit’ and so, for example, two sisters living together would count as two families.

The one area where different surveys take different approaches concerns adults living with their parents, where some surveys (e.g.Households Below Average Income) consider this to be two ‘families’ like it is two ‘benefit units’ whilst others (e.g. the Labour Force Survey) consider it to be a single family.  Neither approach is obviously superior but, when analysing a particular survey by family type, it is important to understand which approach it is taking.