Social Justice

One million UK children experienced 'horrifying levels of destitution' last year, study finds

"To have these horrifying levels of destitution in a country like ours is a political choice," experts have warned as they call on the government to take urgent action

teddy destitution

The number of children facing the most extreme levels of poverty has almost tripled in the last five years. Image: Unsplash

Around 1 million children in the UK experienced “horrifying levels of destitution” last year, a major new poverty report has revealed.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has found that 3.8 million people faced destitution – the most extreme form of hardship – in 2022. That is a 61% increase since 2019.

People are considered destitute if they have not been able to meet their most basic needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed. There has been an even greater increase in the number of children living in these dangerous conditions, up by 88% since 2019.

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 number of people experiencing destitution in the UK has more than doubled in the last five years, up from over 1.5m in 2017. And the number of children facing destitution has almost tripled.

Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, from the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Equalities Research (I-SPHERE) at Heriot-Watt University, said: “This is the most comprehensive and detailed study of its type but having robust data on destitution is meaningless unless acted upon at the highest levels.

“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.”

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Almost two thirds (62%) of people experiencing destitution have a disability or chronic health problem that limits their day-to-day activity, up from 54% in 2019. It comes as charities, campaigners and human right watchdogs have warned that the disability benefits system is failing this group.

The JRF warns that “after more than a decade of cuts and freezes the social security system is so inadequate it is failing to protect people from destitution – and in too many cases pushing them into it”.



Around 72% of destitute households are in receipt of benefits, with more than half (56%) receiving income from universal credit. The JRF is urging the government to increase universal credit so that claimants are guaranteed they can afford the essentials they need to live – at the very least – in a campaign backed by The Big Issue.

Kissack added: “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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