Child poverty in the UK: Latest figures as more plunged into destitution amid cost of living crisis
Here's what you need to know about children living below the breadline across the country
by: Isabella McRae, Hannah Westwater
24 Oct 2023
Millions of children are living in poverty in the UK. Image: Unsplash
Child poverty in the UK is reaching worrying levels. Paltry wages, low benefit payments and a cost of living crisis mean the UK’s poorest families are getting poorer.
Around 4.2 million children were living in poverty in 2021 to 2022, according to the latest government statistics. But the situation is growing worse.
A major report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has revealed 1 million children in the UK experienced “horrifying levels of destitution” in 2022. That is the most extreme level of poverty, with families unable to meet their most basic needs of keeping warm, dry, clean and fed.
Children’s charities, schools and food aid organisations are working tirelessly to plug the gaps created by the welfare system. Here are the basics on what child poverty is, what causes it and the impact it has.
How many children are living in poverty in the UK?
There were 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2021/2022. That is one in three children.
Around 350,000 more children were pushed into poverty last year, according to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). And families who were already struggling to cope have been plunged into even greater levels of deprivation in the cost of living crisis.
The latest stark data from the JRF shows that 1 million children experienced the most extreme levels of poverty – destitution – in 2022. That is an 88% increase since 2019.
Since 2017 the number of children experiencing destitution has almost tripled – an increase of 186%
Food banks in the Trussell Trust’s network saw record numbers of people seeking help between April 2022 and March 2023. Of the almost three million food parcels given out to people by food banks, more than 1 million went to children.
More than 2 million children are eligible for free school meals in England, according to the latest government figures. This is 23.8% of state school pupils, up from 22.5% in 2022.
But charities including the CPAG warn there are at least 800,000 children living in poverty who are not eligible for free school meals. To be eligible for free school meals, a household on universal credit in England must earn less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including benefits).
Around 1.7 million children are in families poor enough to receive universal credit but are not eligible for free school meals. That is seven in 10 children in families on universal credit.
What is meant by child poverty in the UK?
Child poverty is when a child is living in a household with an income less than 60% of the UK average, according to the government.
Absolute poverty, on the other hand, means something different depending on who you ask. The UN’s definition means someone cannot afford basic essentials like food, clothing and housing.
This measure makes it easier to compare conditions between countries – as the minimum income to keep up with basic living standards differs depending on where you are.
Poverty can present in several different ways. If parents cannot afford the basic necessities, that is an indicator of poverty. Having to go without heating and electricity, sacrificing foo or living in insecure housing because they can’t keep up with rent, are all indicators of poverty. It can affect every part of a child’s life.
According to CPAG, “a child can have three meals a day, warm clothes and go to school, but still be poor because her parents don’t have enough money to ensure she can live in a warm home, have access to a computer to do her homework, or go on the same school trips as her classmates”.
Where is child poverty most common in the UK?
North-east England has the highest rate of child poverty across the regions, but many of the worst affected constituencies and local authorities continue to be in London, according to Action for Children. This is due to high housing costs in the capital.
Tower Hamlets had the highest concentration of child poverty in the UK in 2021/22, with almost half of children living below the poverty line after accounting for housing costs. This is followed by Birmingham, Manchester and Sandwell.
Child poverty increased most dramatically in north-east England between 2015 and 2020, rising by over a third from 26% to 37% of all children.
A third of the north east’s rise in child poverty happened between 2019 and 2020, with families pushed into hardship by low wages and frozen benefits, according to research carried out by Loughborough University.
A report published in January 2023 by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) found that child poverty in Yorkshire and the Humber and the North East is currently at its highest level since 2000/2001.
APPG’s co-chair Emma Lewell-Buck, Labour MP for South Shields, said: “Whilst poverty is, sadly, not a new experience for many children in the north, the scale and severity of deprivation is now unprecedented.
“As the cost of living crisis worsens, vulnerable children and families, especially in the north, are being pushed to the edge.”
Demand for free school meals is also highest in the north-east, where around 29.1% of children qualified last year, compared to 17.6% in the South East.
The Childhood Trust has found 40% of children aged six to 16 are facing food poverty in London, meaning their families cannot afford to keep them fed.
What are the main causes of child poverty?
There are many reasons a child may be living in poverty. Soaring rent costs, insecure work and low pay plus a patchy welfare system are some of the factors that leave families without the means to get by.
But some children are more likely to be living in poverty than others.
Around 44% of children living in single-parent families were in poverty in 2021/2022, according to the most recent government statistics. Lone parents face a higher risk of poverty partly because they have to rely on one set of earnings, but also because of low rates of maintenance payments, gender inequality in employment and pay and childcare costs.
Children from an ethnic minority background are also more likely to face poverty. An estimated 47% of children in Asian and British Asian families are in poverty, and 53% of children in Black, African, Caribbean and Black British families are in poverty. That is compared to just 25% of children in white families.
Where families whose youngest child is aged under five, 45% of all children are living in poverty. Larger families are struggling more too – 42% of children in families with three or more kids were in poverty, up from 36% a decade earlier.
Disabled people or families with disabled children are disproportionately impacted by poverty. Approximately 36% of children living in families where someone has a disability were in poverty.
The proportion of kids living in poverty whose parents or carers are in work increased from 67% in 2015 to 71% in 2021.
Campaigners and economic experts have repeatedly called for an overhaul of the social security safety net, particularly reforms for universal credit and an end to the two-child limit to receiving some benefits.
The five-week wait for a first universal credit payment has been blamed for rising food bank use and an increase in children living in poverty. New claimants can receive an advance loan, but this must be repaid – meaning their payments for the year are spread over thirteen weeks rather than twelve, pushing families further into debt.
The work and pensions committee presented evidence to the government showing the wait had a damaging impact on both adults and children, but ministers refused to investigate the problem or reform the controversial benefit.
The £20 cut to universal credit in October 2021 plunged families back into poverty after giving them light relief throughout the pandemic. As inflation continues to rise, the increase to universal credit payments in April was not enough to shield families from the rising cost of living – and there are fears that benefits will not be increased in line with inflation in April 2024.
Another 400,000 children will be “plunged into poverty” if benefits are not increased in line with inflation from April, experts have warned.
Research from the Resolution Foundation has revealed that nine million families will see their incomes reduced by an average of £470 if benefits are frozen in cash terms, which would push hundreds of thousands of children into absolute poverty.
The Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation have estimated universal credit claimants are £35 short of the money needed to live each week, meaning they are forced to sacrifice essentials like food and heating to pay their bills.
It means many of those who are unable to work – whether it be because there are fewer and fewer vacancies, because of disability or because of caring responsibilities – struggle to make ends meet even when claiming benefits.
How does poverty affect children?
Poverty can have a serious impact on a child’s wellbeing. Some report feeling ashamed and unhappy and worry about their parents. Disadvantaged children are 4.5 times more likely to develop severe mental health problems by age 11 than their well-off peers, a Millennium Cohort study showed.
It affects their education too. Research carried out five years ago showed that just a third of children who claimed free school meals achieved five or more good GCSE grades compared to two-thirds of children whose families are comfortable.
Children who were eligible for free school meals earn less than their peers, and the gap grows as they get older, new data shows. The Office for National Statistics has revealed half of free school meals pupils earn less than £17,000 a year by the time they reach 30 years old.
School closures during the pandemic hit the most deprived children hardest, while research by the Education Policy Institute showed the attainment gap between rich and poor classmates started widening prior to the pandemic.
Laurence Guinness, chief executive of the Childhood Trust, previously told the Big Issue hunger has a significant impact on children’s health – they will be lacking in vitamins, nutrients and proteins which will weaken their immune systems and expose them to illness and disease. It will also have an impact on their mental health.
Guinness said: “We’ve never seen levels of food insecurity at that high before. It’s an alarm bell, in the face of growing adversity and the diminishing power of household income. It’s really hard now for families on low and even middle incomes to make ends meet. And if a net consequence of that is as the children are having to miss meals, that’s really serious. That’s actually a public health crisis.”
Poverty also puts kids at greater risk of being groomed or exploited by criminal gangs, according to Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner for England.
How is the cost of living crisis impacting children?
The cost of living crisis is worsening the levels of child poverty in the UK. Around 68% of school staff say pupils increasingly don’t have money for enough food at lunchtime, according to the CPAG.
And a large majority of teachers (79%) are having to divert time away from their usual roles to help kids affected by poverty – with some schools setting up food banks.
Children are eating rubbers and stealing food from their classmates because they are so hungry in school, teachers reported in a study released last year.
Families living in poverty are struggling to feed their children in the cost of living crisis. Denise, a single mother of two young boys, told The Big Issue she is battling to cope and does not have enough to keep her children healthy.
The Childhood Trust is supporting Denise’s family. Guinness, its chief executive, said: “The 11-year-old is fairly tall for his age, but he is so thin. You can see his ribs sticking out through his T-shirt. It is pitiful. These children are not getting enough to eat on a regular basis.
The cost of living crisis threatens to stunt children’s development and increase their risk of respiratory illness, paediatricians at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have warned.
In a study by the Childhood Trust, around one in three parents who said their children had raised worries about the cost of living crisis. Of these, 9% said their children had started self-harming and a similar number said their children had shown suicidal tendencies.
Denise reached out to her council, but was told there was nothing it could do. “Her children are starving and nobody can help,” Guinness said. “That’s where we’ve ended up. She can’t access government ministers, she can’t access policy makers. Her story is representative of millions of low income households, many of whom are in the same situation and can’t access any support whatsoever.”
What can be done to end child poverty?
Charities have said the government’s plans to combat the cost of living crisis won’t be enough to end child poverty. They are calling for an expansion of free school meals, scrapping the two-child limit on benefits and extending the Holiday Food and Activities Programme to more children. They also want benefits to be raised in line with inflation next year – at the very least.
Chief executive of CPAG Alison Garnham said: “Investing in social security is the way to remove children from poverty. Indeed, the government did lift many kids from poverty with the £20 universal credit increase, but it plunged them back again with a subsequent cut.
“It’s inexcusable for ministers to sit on their hands. The government must extend free school meals, remove the benefit cap and two-child limit and increase child benefit. The human cost for the children in today’s figures is incalculable. The economic fallout for all of us is vast. But if the political will is there, child poverty can be fixed.”
Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, from the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Equalities Research (I-SPHERE) at Heriot-Watt University, said: “The number of children living in destitution in this country has nearly trebled since 2017. This is morally reprehensible and must act as a stark wake up call to policymakers across the political spectrum. No one of any age should be destitute in the UK today.
“To have these horrifying levels of destitution in a country like ours is a political choice. The scale of extreme material hardship we have uncovered reflects the state abdicating its responsibility to ensure that all members of our society are able to meet their most basic physical needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed without having to rely on charitable help. There must be immediate action from all levels of government to tackle this social emergency.”
Labour MP Zarah Sultana wants to change the law to guarantee all primary school children in England receive free school meals.
She said: “This bill would tackle the injustice of child poverty in Britain, where around a million kids living in poverty don’t have access to free school meals, and it would bring England into line with Scotland and Wales, who are already putting it into practice. If the government was really serious about ‘levelling-up’, this is what they’d do.”
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust are calling for an ‘essentials guarantee’ so that universal credit claimants can afford the basics they need to live – at the very least.
Paul Kissack, the chief executive of the JRF, said: “Across our country we are leaving families freezing in their homes or lacking basic necessities like food and clothing. Such severe hardship should have no place in the UK today – and the British public will not stand for destitution on this scale.
“The government is not helpless to act: it is choosing not to. Turning the tide on destitution is an urgent moral mission, which speaks to our basic humanity as a country, and we need political leadership for that mission. That is why we are calling for clear proposals from all political parties to address this challenge with the urgency it demands.”
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