1m children in most extreme poverty as figure almost trebles since 2017 – report

Almost four million people, including more than a million children, experienced the most extreme form of poverty last year in the UK, according to a new report which describes such “horrifying levels of destitution” as a political choice.

Social change organisation the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) said the figure for children has almost trebled since 2017 and topped one million for the first time since it began its research in 2015.

Around 3.8 million people experienced destitution in 2022, the charity said, adding that the figure has more than doubled from 1,550,000 in 2017.

The number of children was 1.04 million, up from 362,000 in 2017.

The organisation defines destitution as when someone cannot afford what they need to meet their most basic physical needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed.

The report – the fourth in a series of Destitution in the UK studies published regularly in recent years – puts the rise down to a combination of very low incomes, rising cost of living and high levels of debt.

But it also said the social security system is failing to protect people from destitution, with almost three quarters (72%) of those destitute being in receipt of benefits.

While single people aged between 25 and 44 years old remain the key group experiencing destitution, more families and older people are now destitute, the report said.

It is more often being left to charities to try to plug gaps for people in desperate situations, the report said.

It stated: “The shocking statistics revealed in this report reflect a social security system now so full of holes that it falls to charities – such as food banks – to try to prevent people from experiencing the worst of destitution, but the task is too great for them.

“What is more, relying on charity to fulfil what should be the responsibility of the Government is morally unacceptable.”

Earlier this month food bank network the Trussell Trust warned that a record more than one million emergency parcels could be handed out this winter due to an ever-growing need.

While food remained the most common essential people were lacking in 2022 – reported by 61% of all destitute respondents – heating was for the first time the second greatest essential people were lacking.

The proportion lacking lighting also rose substantially, the JRF said, attributing the increases to the recent steep rise in energy prices.

London had the highest destitution levels in 2022, followed by the North East and North West, and then the West Midlands, with the lowest rates in the southern English regions, the report said.

An elderly lady with her electric fire on
The report said heating was for the first time the second greatest essential people were lacking (PA)

It added that Wales and Scotland had rates comparable with the Midlands in England, but Scotland had improved its position which the JRF said could be down to the introduction of the Scottish Child Payment in 2021.

While the report is UK-wide, the JRF said the local authority indicator database does not extend to Northern Ireland councils, so much of the data used to construct these are not available and instead an estimate has been given for the region.

The majority (72%) of destitute survey respondents last year were born in the UK but migrants are disproportionately affected by destitution, the JRF said, with an “especially rapid increase” since 2019.

The total number of migrants who were destitute in 2022, including those with complex needs, was 488,600 households.

“Migrants experiencing destitution are seriously and increasingly lacking in access to both cash and in-kind forms of support,” the report said.

Overall, the charity said destitution is “an expanding phenomenon in 2022, reaching across a wider swathe of the population than previously”.

It is calling on all political parties to make tackling destitution a priority and to set out their plans to reverse the rise.

The JRF repeated longstanding calls from charities to bring in a so-called essentials guarantee as part of universal credit, to ensure that everyone has a protected minimum amount of support to afford essentials such as food and household bills.

It also urged the Government to lower the current limit on benefits deductions, reform sanctions so that people are not left with zero or extremely low income, and ensure that people can access the disability benefits they are entitled to.

Paul Kissack, JRF chief executive, said: “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.”

Report co-author Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, from Heriot-Watt University, said the figures for children were “morally reprehensible and must act as a stark wake-up call to policymakers across the political spectrum”.

Prof Fitzpatrick added: “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.”

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said the figures are “a disgrace that should shame us all” while former children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield warned there must be an “urgent laser-like focus from within government to tackle child poverty so that we can consign childhood destitution to the history books and Dickensian novels where it belongs”.

A UK Government spokesperson said: “Our number one priority is driving down inflation because that will help everyone’s money go further.”

The spokesperson outlined financial support “worth an average of £3,300 per household” which has been provided to date, as well as an investment of £3.5 billion to help people into work, and the expansion of free childcare.

Charities and other organisations are hoping Chancellor Jeremy Hunt will announce a rise in benefits which is at least in line with inflation when he makes his autumn statement on November 22 – although Downing Street has declined to make any commitment, saying there is a process to follow.