Most UK children 'a pay cheque away' from going without essentials like food

Thursday 23 April 2020

“We’re literally living hand to mouth at the moment. We don’t have savings to fall back on”

  • As UK marks a month of lockdown, new Action for Children analysis shows over 8.5 million children living in families with savings less than the average monthly income before the coronavirus crisis hit
  • With millions of jobs under threat and ongoing problems with Government support, families struggle to pay for food and other essentials
  • Regional breakdown shows stark North-South divide with parents in North East most likely to have little or no savings
  • Frontline Action for Children staff ‘battling’ to help vulnerable families stay afloat through the charity’s emergency appeal.
  • One mum said: “We’ve been working and making our own money and then suddenly, I’m not able to provide for my family.”

A new analysis of official figures by Action for Children today (Thursday 23 April) suggests the majority of children in the UK are living in families with little or no savings to shield them from the unprecedented economic disruption to family finances expected from the coronavirus crisis.

A month into a lockdown that’s seen millions of jobs put at risk (1), the charity’s pre-pandemic snapshot shows at least 8.6 million children - nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of all children in the UK – were living in families with savings less than the average monthly income (£1,569). Half of children (51 per cent) live in families with no savings at all (2).

With ongoing problems with Universal Credit (3) and delays to vouchers for free school meals (4), Action for Children is warning these families are now teetering on the brink and has launched an emergency appeal to help families facing months of hardship, struggling to pay for essentials like food, nappies and utility bills.

The research also found a stark North-South divide in family savings, showing those in the North East were most likely to have little or no money set aside for the crisis (71 per cent), compared to those in the South East (56 per cent) who had the largest financial safety net.

Case study: Michelle (name changed to protect identity), a mum from Dunfermline with two girls aged eight and one, has been a self-employed hairdresser since November 2019. Her and her partner’s incomes paid for the mortgage, bills, food shops and to ensure their children had warm clothes.

When coronavirus hit, however, they started to struggle.  “I was bringing in a steady income and we were relying on that to pay for the food and all the things for the girls. My partner’s salary covers the mortgage and bills, but I would pay for all of the extras such as food, stuff for the girls and other things we needed - it mainly sustained the basic needs we have.

“But then coronavirus hit and I was no longer bringing in an income. My partner was able to take on extra shifts but that meant he was working himself into the ground and I was so worried about his mental health with him working and worrying so much.

“I was being really careful with food, making sure the kids were getting fed first and I was just eating smaller portions. I was tending to not want to eat in the end and my appetite was just fading.

“My youngest is only one and we were just weaning her off from breast feeding but then the shops started running out of milk and with only the one wage, we couldn’t afford the powdered milk so I’ve had to go back to breast feeding more often. My body is so tired, it was preparing to stop and now I’m having to push it to let me keep feeding her.

“I wasn't furloughed, I just can’t work because of the situation. I’m not entitled to any self-employment support as I haven’t long been a hairdresser and because of my partner’s wage.  I received a letter to say I can receive Job Seekers’ Allowance but was told before I couldn't. I’m worried about the issues people face getting government money and that I’ll then be in a worse situation having to end up paying it back.”

Michelle reached out to the Action for Children family support practitioner she had met through baby classes and was offered support from the charity’s Emergency Coronavirus Appeal fund. She said: “I was getting so frustrated. We’ve been working and making our own money and then suddenly, I’m not able to provide for my family.

“Thankfully I’ve been given a £100 voucher to get food for the family. I’ll be able to buy powdered milk, which I definitely couldn’t afford without it. It just makes me feel so relieved. I was so stressed and now I don’t need to worry. It really makes you realise that regardless of your circumstances before, anyone could need help right now. It’s ensuring that I can put food on the table for my little girls.”

Carol Iddon, deputy chief executive at Action for Children, said: “Millions of vulnerable families with children were struggling to put food on the table even before they were hit by the economic impact of this once-in-a-generation health crisis. A month into lockdown, they are hanging by a thread.

“Action for Children’s frontline staff are battling to help frightened families come out the other side of this but are overwhelmed by the sheer desperation of those who are only a pay cheque away from no longer being able to keep their children and babies warm and well fed. 

“With so many families close to breaking point and many more on the breadline, we’re supporting struggling families all over the country through our emergency appeal to help them pay for essentials, and are asking people to donate to Action for Children. But the government must act too, and use the most effective way we have of getting help to children, by increasing child benefit by £10 a week.”

To support Action for Children’s Emergency Coronavirus Appeal which is helping families cover the cost of essentials like food, nappies and utility bills, please visit, call 0300 123 2112 or text ACTION to 70175 to give £10.

Further quotes from families supported by Action for Children:

Family from Torbay:      

“We’re literally living hand to mouth at the moment. We don’t have savings to fall back on and my husband’s been applying for jobs left right and centre but everyone is scrambling for the same jobs. Our main worry is if it comes to the point where money runs out. What if we can’t put food on the table or how long before we can get Universal Credit? What if we get ill and are stuck in lockdown? Nobody has an answer.”

Mum from Northern Ireland:

“I felt bad not giving my little girl fresh fruit and veg. But then my Action for Children worker got me the emergency fund and I felt like I had won the lottery. I don’t have to worry about where the next meal will come from now. We have fresh fruit, veg and meat for healthy meals that will last us for the next three weeks.”


Media contact

Huw Beale, Action for Children media team – 07718 114 038 / [email protected]

Out of hours: 07802 806 679 / [email protected]

Notes to editors

  1. Office for Budget Responsibility - Coronavirus lockdown to deliver large (but hopefully temporary) shock to the economy and public finances 14 April 2020
  2. Action for Children analysed the latest available regional data from the Family Resources Survey (FRS) for the years 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/8. A regional breakdown of FRS requires three-year averages to be robust. The FRS classifies children as those under 16 years old as well 16-19 year-olds who are neither married nor in a civil partnership and those living with parents and in full-time study or training. The median monthly income £1,569 for families with children was calculated by averaging the median household income for families with children for the years 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18 (FRS).
  3. Child Poverty Action Group Universal Credit briefing, April 2020
  4. Delays to free school meal vouchers