Social Justice

Child poverty in the UK: the definitions, causes and consequences in the cost of living crisis

Here’s what you need to know about children living below the breadline across the country

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.

Analysis from the Resolution Foundation has projected that a further 500,000 children will fall into poverty by April 2023. 

Children’s charities, schools and food aid organisations are working tirelessly to plug the gaps created by the welfare system. Food banks are now being set up in schools so children have enough to eat.

Children are perhaps the most vulnerable group in any society, and often first to feel the effects of rising poverty across society. 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?

Over 14.5 million people are living in poverty in the UK, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. That includes 4.3 million children

Between April 2021 and March 2022, food banks in the Trussell Trust’s UK wide network distributed over 2.1 million emergency food parcels to people in crisis. A total of 832,000 of these parcels went to children. 


Just under 1.9 million children are eligible for free school meals in England, according to the latest government figures. This is 22.5 per cent of state school pupils.

It is an increase of nearly 160,000 pupils since January 2021, when 1.74 million (20.8 per cent) of students were eligible for free school meals.

What is meant by child poverty in the UK?

Households with an income less than 60 per cent of the UK average are living in poverty, according to the government. 

Absolute poverty, on the other hand, means something different depending on who you ask. The definition adopted by the UN 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 are struggling to afford food and rely on food banks, that is an indicator of poverty. Having to go without heating and electricity, facing childcare costs higher than earnings, or living in insecure housing because families can’t keep up with the rent, are all indicators of poverty. It can affect every part of a child’s life.

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) said: “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?

Child poverty increased most dramatically in the North East of England between 2015 and 2020, rising by over a third from 26 per cent to 37 per cent 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.

Demand for free school meals is also highest in the North East, where around 29.1 per cent of children currently qualify, compared to just 17.6  per cent in the South East. 

But, while the North East now has the highest rate of child poverty across the regions, 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 is the borough with the highest rate of child poverty after housing costs, with a rate of 51 per cent, according to Trust for London. Child poverty rates are also high in other large cities like Birmingham and Manchester.

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.

The proportion of kids living in poverty whose parents or carers are in work increased sharply from 67 per cent in 2015 to 75 per cent in 2020.

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 last October plunged families back into poverty after giving them light relief throughout the pandemic. As inflation continues to rise, the 3.1 per cent increase to universal credit payments is not enough to shield families from the rising cost of living. 

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. 

It’s a particular challenge for bigger families. Up to 43 per cent of those with two or more siblings were thought to be struggling for resources, according to CPAG. Single parent families will also be hit hard, with around a third of single parents admitting they’ve gone without meals in order to feed their kids, or have had to sacrifice putting the heating on.

Research from the CPAG has found that 35,000 more families could have their benefits capped next April, “leaving them with a growing gulf between their income and rising costs”.

Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group Alison Garnham said: “The cost of living crisis shows that the benefit cap is broken, and needs to go. It has always forced families to live on much less than they need, but as prices spiral the effects are brutal and over 300,000 children are among its casualties.

“In his cost-of-living support package the Chancellor recognised that families subject to the cap face the same cost pressures as everybody else.  By the same logic, the cap must be removed to help the worst off families stay afloat. Next April’s uprating must be available to every family on benefits, as a bare minimum layer of protection against dramatically higher living costs.”

How does poverty affect children?

Living in 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.

Kids in inadequate housing have been shown to be more at risk of respiratory illnesses and meningitis. Those in the most disadvantaged areas can expect 20 fewer years of good health in their lives than children in places with more resources.

“Material deprivation” – which refers to the inability to afford basics such as food and heating – increased between 2019 and 2020, including for another 140,000 children. This means around 1.7 million children total are forced to go without essentials.

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. 

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.

Poverty even puts kids at greater risk of being groomed or exploited by criminal gangs, according to Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner for England. 

Sara Ogilvie, policy director of Child Poverty Action Group said the government’s failure to bring universal credit in line with inflation will impose a real terms cut of £633 on families on universal credit.   

She said: “Government needs to do more to show it understands the reality of life for parents and children across the UK. Anything less than urgent action on benefits and we’ll have more parents in debt, more hunger, more children without essentials. But for today, the government looks increasingly remote from real life families.”

Break the cycle of poverty for good
Big Futures is calling on the Government to put in place a plan and policies to break this cycle of poverty for good. We are calling for long-term solutions to meet the biggest issues faced in the UK today – the housing crisis, low wages and the climate crisis. Dealing with these issues will help the UK to protect the environmental, social, economic and cultural wellbeing of future generations. So that young people and future generations have a fair shot at life. Join us and demand a better future.

What impact has the pandemic had on child poverty?

Schools closing in lockdown during the pandemic meant families, whose children normally rely on free school meals for a nutritious lunch five days a week, had another mouth to feed.

Nearly one million kids signed up for free school meals for the first time in 2020, Councils across the UK provided supermarket vouchers and food parcels to cover the cost, but campaigners including Marcus Rashford had to fight for the government to extend free school meals over the summer holidays when thousands were struggling through the pandemic. 

Families with children were also faced with soaring childcare costs in lockdown, particularly for those in low-paid jobs who were identified as key workers and had to keep going to work. Such costs have only increased in recent months, with childcare costs expected to soar from April, along with everything else.

A TUC survey found that a third of working parents spend more than a third of their salary on childcare costs.

How is the cost of living crisis impacting children?

The Resolution Foundation has estimated that, of the 1.3 million who will be plunged into further poverty from April, 500,000 will be children. Its analysis found that a single parent with one child who works 20 hours per week and receives universal credit will see a real terms income loss of three per cent, equating to £584 a month. 

With benefits not rising to meet inflation, parents are having to choose between feeding themselves or their children. 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.

It’s also affecting children’s mental health. 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, nine per cent said their children had started self-harming and a similar number said their children had shown suicidal tendencies.

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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 help families on the lowest incomes. 

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “The measures announced will help, but won’t fully shield families with children from the pain they’re experiencing. Ultimately, we need a stronger social security system to ensure all families with children can meet their basic needs.

“With nearly four million children in families on universal credit, increasing the child element of this benefit would protect more children from growing up in desperate hardship and help give them the bright futures they deserve.”

A spokesperson for the Children’s Society said: “What we need from now is targeted support for children. One-off payments are a welcome boost, but the government must learn lessons from the pandemic. 

“We need investment in a system that works for children and struggling families in the long-term, instead of pulling them back from the brink of financial crisis as and when. This means increasing child benefit, giving more children access to free school meals and more sustained funding for Local Welfare Assistance schemes.”


Every copy counts this Christmas

Your local vendor is at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis this Christmas. Prices of energy and food are rising rapidly. As is the cost of rent. All at their highest rate in 40 years. Vendors are amongst the most vulnerable people affected. Support our vendors to earn as much as they can and give them a fighting chance this Christmas.

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