How poverty affects children’s mental health

Friday 12 May 2023
Teen boy sitting at a kitchen table eating soup served by his father

We look at the effects of poverty and what Action for Children is doing to reduce its effects in 2023

Poverty can have a number of effects on children’s physical and mental health. Families in poverty are less likely to be able to afford essentials such as food and heating. Parents in poverty cannot provide a decent standard of living or take part in enjoyable activities with their children. They also face food insecurity and cramped living situations. All of these issues impact children’s mental health.

The cost-of-living crisis has highlighted the poverty in the UK to such an extent that we now accept it as a well-known fact. The rise in inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a worrying decrease in the income of UK households, putting many people in financial distress. And vulnerable children and families are now being pushed to the edge.

So what do the statistics show about the extent of poverty in the UK, and specifically – how many children are currently living in poverty? How does poverty affect children, including their mental health?

Below we discuss these topics and include a list of resources and services offered by Action for Children. Tackling child poverty the UK is one of our main priorities.

We must act now

Explore the impact of child poverty in your area, and send this to your MP

Use our tool (opens in a new tab)

What is the impact of poverty on children and families?

Poverty affects children in many negative ways including with their physical and mental health and their educational outcomes. Young people in poverty may have to take on part-time work earlier. This would take time away from their studies and lead to poorer educational outcomes in comparison to wealthier peers.

Poverty also puts a strain on parents' mental health and this in turn, affects their parenting behaviours. As a result, children are negatively affected by poverty before they are even born and throughout their lives.

How does poverty affect children’s mental health?

The Children’s Society states that children living around debt are five times more likely to be unhappy than children who are not living around debt. On top of this, children in poverty are less likely to be able to afford the travel fare to get access to helpful resources that could improve their mental health, leading to them suffering alone.

When children turn up to school in unforms that are not new or branded, there’s a chance that they will face bullying. In November 2021, the government published guidance for schools on keeping cost of uniforms down, a welcome step in tackling material deprivation.

I don’t let myself get stressed over exams anymore. My days go a lot smoother now, I don’t let one little thing impact on the rest of my day. I always try to move past it.

Esther, a young person who received mental health support from our Blues Programme

Understanding the scope of the issue of poverty in the UK is vital if we want to able to help people through it and out of it. It’s clear from the data that poverty is having a negative effect on the mental health of children. At Action for children, we inform people about the scale of poverty in the UK, we put pressure on the government to act, and we provide a range of resources to help families currently facing poverty.

It's time to end child poverty

Too many children are growing up in poverty. But you can help them.

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What is the extent of child poverty in the UK in 2023?

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that 1 in 5 people were living in poverty in the UK in 2020/21. Of these, 3.9 million were children and alarmingly, the figures for the next year (2021/22) show that this number increased to 4.2 million children. This is 29% of all children in the UK.

1.6 million children (11% of all children) live in low-income households that struggle to afford basic essentials such as warm winter coats and fresh fruit and vegetables.

The risk of poverty is not the same for everyone. Those living in households where the head of the house is either Bangladeshi or Pakistani, have a higher rate of poverty than those from white ethnic backgrounds (2021/ 2022). And when we consider where child poverty is increasing the most in the UK, data shows that areas in the Midlands and Northern England have been the hardest hit.

Living standards are forecast to decrease, with the Office for Budget Responsibility predicting that real household disposable income per person will fall by a cumulative 5.7% over 2022/23 and 2023/24. Households have less disposable income because of the rise of both energy prices and other imported goods to the UK.

How Action for Children supports children’s mental health:

Right now, 4.2 million children live in poverty in the UK. That’s 600,000 more than in 2012. And 29% of all children. This is a devastating number of children going without the safe and happy childhoods they deserve.

At Action for Children, we understand the importance of good mental health for children, young people, and their families. That is why we have thousands of frontline workers supporting children every day. We offer a range of support services to suit the needs of people going through different struggles. But we can only do this because of the generous support from people like you.

Last year we received 3,552 referrals for children and young people. I know that without the work we do, these young people can struggle to get the support they need... about 98% of people report successful outcomes when their interventions end.

Tina, a Service Coordinator at a children’s and young people’s service

Where can you get help

Take a look at the list below to see some of the services we offer.

  • The Blues programme: a six-week wellbeing programme for young people aged 13-19. It teaches emotional resilience and helps to reduce low mood and anxious thoughts.
  • Parent Talk: our online hub for down-to-earth parenting advice including topics such as mental and emotional wellbeing. Parents can browse our advice articles or speak directly to a coach through our one-to-one live chat.
  • Writing for Mental Health: includes two toolkits - one for young people aged 11-18 and the other for adults working with young people. Each toolkit includes printable activities and ideas to get young people writing to express how they feel.
  • Our services: our 496 local services offer a huge range of support when you need it. Browse the services by location or topic.
  • Our blog: read our inspiring and informative articles written by support staff and service users. You can filter for topics including ‘Mental health’, 'Young People, and ‘Poverty’.
We must act now

Explore the impact of child poverty in your area, and send this to your MP

Use our tool (opens in a new tab)

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