The 365,000 children living in destitution across the UK

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As thousands of families struggle to afford food, clothes, heating and other essentials – leaving 365,000 children living in destitution – action is demanded over benefit sanctions. Pete Henshaw reports

An estimated 365,000 children were in destitution at some point in 2017 – living without the bare essentials that we need to eat, stay warm and keep clean.

Destitution is described as lacking key essentials such as shelter, food, heating, lighting, clothing or basic toiletries.

The estimate has been made in a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), which reveals that 1.5 million people (including the 365,000 children) were living in destitution at some point in 2017.

This equates to the combined population of Liverpool and Birmingham.

One of the effects of this destitution is children arriving at school hungry, the report warns. The cost of school uniforms is also cited as a key problem.

The study warns that low benefit levels, “harsh and uncoordinated debt recovery practices”, pressures caused by poor health or disability, and high housing costs are among the factors that can lead to destitution.

It classifies “destitution” as lacking two or more of six life essentials. These are:

  • Shelter (slept rough for one or more nights).
  • Food (fewer than two meals a day for two days or more).
  • Heating their home (unable to do this for five or more days).
  • Lighting their home (unable to do this for five or more days).
  • Clothing/footwear (appropriate for weather).
  • Basic toiletries (soap, toothpaste).

The report states: “People are generally pushed from severe poverty into absolute destitution by a combination of factors: debt, benefit and health problems. Extremely low levels of benefits, especially for younger people, or no eligibility for benefits, for some migrants, also drive people into destitution.

“Destitution is clustered in major northern cities and some London boroughs. Rates are low in the prosperous parts of southern England.”

Food was cited as the most commonly lacked item, with around six in 10 of those in destitution going without food at some point during the past month. Nearly half (47 per cent) lacked basic toiletries, with 46 per cent lacking suitable clothing and 42 per cent having to go without heating.

One in five who were destitute reported lacking lighting at home, and 16 per cent had recently slept rough. Nearly half of all destitute households reported lacking three or more of these essentials in the month before they were surveyed.

The report includes evidence from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty about the impact on children. It states: “Aside from the number of people relying on food banks, the number of children arriving at school hungry is beginning to emerge as a most visible indicator of our nation’s vulnerability to hunger.”

The APPG itself has previously reported on the thousands of pupils in our schools who are underweight. Two years ago it warned that 7,663 children started year 6 underweight – an increase of 15 per cent since 2012.

At the time, the APPG chair Frank Field MP said: “Too many people in Britain are hungry. How many? We do not know. A very large part of this group of hungry people are children. Again we have only impressions which suggest that too many children have hunger as their most constant companion.”

Clothing was also a huge challenge for families. The report adds: “Children’s clothing was a major issue for parents because of the frequent need for new clothes as they grew. The expense of school uniforms was also mentioned as a particular challenge.”

Research from the Children’s Society has previously suggested that families with children at secondary school face having to pay more than £300 per-child, per-year in uniform costs on average.

And in 2015, research from the National Association of Head Teachers found that two in five schools say that they “frequently” have to provide food for pupils who come to class hungry. Schools are also buying items of uniform, other equipment and even basic items of clothing, such as underwear, for disadvantaged pupils, the NAHT found. It said that schools were spending £43.5 million a year to pay for these extra commitments.

Meanwhile, the JRF says that the benefits system has a key role to play. It is calling on the government to end the freeze on working-age benefits “so they at least keep up with the cost of essentials”. It also wants to see a change in the use of sanctions within Universal Credit, “so that people are not left destitute by design”. It wants a review of the total amount of debt that can be clawed back from people receiving benefits.

Levels of destitution have declined by around 25 per cent since 2015 – which the report puts down to a reduction in benefits sanctions. But the JRF wants to see further action and is worried that the high sanction rate within the Universal Credit system could lead to an increase in levels of destitution in the future.

Chief executive Campbell Robb said: “Actions by government, local authorities and utility companies are leading to ‘destitution by design’: forcing people into a corner when they are penniless and have nowhere to turn. This is shameful.

“Social security should be an anchor holding people steady against powerful currents such as rising costs, insecure housing and jobs, and low pay, but people are instead becoming destitute with no clear way out.” He added: “To be destitute doesn’t just mean getting by on very little, it’s losing the ability to keep a roof over your head, eat often enough, or afford warm clothes when it’s cold. You can’t keep yourself clean or put the lights on. This shouldn’t happen to anybody, let alone more than 1.5 million people in the UK.

“The reduction in benefit sanction rates has meant that some welcome headway has been made, but there is a real risk that once Universal Credit is embedded across the country, more people could again be at risk unless we make changes.”


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