Nearly one in eight children in Northern Ireland growing up deprived of the basics

Monday 11 December 2023
Teen boy sitting at a kitchen table eating soup served by his father

As we approach the festive season, new research finds a staggering number of children are growing up in material deprivation.

  • New Action for Children research finds an estimated 50,000 children in Northern Ireland (12%) are living in material deprivation, meaning they are going without the basics like warmth, fresh food or a celebration this Christmas.
  • This comes at the same time new polling shows around a third of children aged 8 to eighteen across the UK fear a friend or classmate won’t get any presents (33%) or celebrate Christmas this year (32%) because their family can’t afford it.
  • The charity’s frontline workers confirm pressure on struggling families is worse than last Christmas and highlight the desperate choices parents are being forced to make.
  • One worker reports helping children who were walking 1.5 miles to school without coats. Another describes a family going without a cooker for weeks on end.
  • The public are encouraged to be a Secret Santa for Action for Children to help a vulnerable child.

To support its annual Secret Santa campaign to help the country’s most vulnerable children, Action for Children worked with NatCen to analyse official government data on children living in material deprivation, collected before the worst of the cost of living crisis and energy price shock.

It found nearly one in eight (12%) children in Northern Ireland – an estimated 50,000 – are materially deprived, meaning their families can’t afford the basic items and activities the Government considers essential to a happy and healthy childhood.

The research also showed that in Northern Ireland approximately 100,000 children live in families unable to save at least £10 a month (31%), with a similar number of children having parents who can’t replace broken essential goods such as fridges or washing machines (12%).

UK wide, the research showed:

  • 4.2 million children live in families that can’t save at least £10 a month (29%);
  • 2.7 million have parents who can’t replace broken essential electrical goods such as a fridge or washing machine (19%);
  • 1.2 million have parents who can’t keep up with bills (8%);
  • 800,000 have parents who can’t afford to keep the house warm (5%);
  • 700,000 who can’t afford to have friends around for tea or a snack once a fortnight (5%);
  • 300,000 children in families that can’t afford to eat fresh fruit or vegetables each day (2%); and
  • 200,000* children are in families that can’t afford to go to a playgroup once a week (4%), or to celebrate on special occasions (2%).

For a deeper understanding of what poverty looks like for these children in the run up to Christmas, Action for Children carried out surveys last month with children aged 8 to eighteen, and with nearly 200 of its frontline workers.

Of 2,004 UK children polled:

  • Around a third worry a friend or someone in their class or year group won’t get any presents (33%) because their family can’t afford it, or be able to celebrate Christmas this year (32%) due to money worries;
  • 3 in ten (30%) worry a friend or classmate won’t have a warm home this winter because their family can’t afford to keep it heated;
  • More than a quarter (28%) worry a friend or classmate won’t have enough to eat or drink on a regular basis because their family can’t afford it; and
  • More than a fifth (22%) are concerned a friend or classmate won’t be able to visit their family this Christmas as they can’t afford to travel to see them.

Of nearly 200 Action for Children frontline workers surveyed:

  • Three-quarters (75%) said the current pressures on families and young people they support are worse than last year, with more than four in ten (43%) saying it’s much worse;
  • A third (32%) said energy bills and three in ten (30%) said food costs were the biggest financial concerns among those they’re supporting right now; and
  • 15% said getting into – or deeper into - debt is a bigger concern this year compared to last (15% in 2023 vs 8% in 2022).

One worker in Northern Ireland supported a family who had been living without a cooker for weeks on end, as they had to prioritise their spending on necessities. Another worker spoke of multiple families she’s visited across NI where the homes she goes into with young children are damp and covered with mould, because families simply cannot afford gas and electric to provide heat and light.

Claire Larkin, Service Co-ordinator for the Northern Family Support Hub run by Action for Children said:

“The demand this year has been greater than anything we have previously experienced, and it highlights the ongoing and significant impact the cost of living crisis is having on families, children, and young people."

“We recently spoke to one mum who was preparing herself to sit her three children down and explain that Christmas just couldn’t happen this year due to the financial difficulties she was experiencing.”

Two children in Northern Ireland were walking 1.5 miles to school every day in the cold weather as the family don’t have a car and simply couldn’t afford to purchase them winter coats. Many Action for Children workers’ day jobs now increasingly include having to provide poverty relief before any other support. One admitted that most of their time "is taken up by making sure the children have basic provisions and warm clothing."

Lorna Ballard, National Director Northern Ireland at Action for Children, said: "The magic of Christmas begins in childhood. But for children on the breadline across Northern Ireland, it’s anything but magical. How do you give a child a Christmas to remember when you’re going without food so they can eat? How can they experience the joy of Christmas if it’s just another day to go to bed hungry and to wake up cold?

"We’re seeing children without a bed sleeping on the floor with just blankets, and families phoning us crying because they have no money to feed their children. We know missing out on essentials like these can scar a child’s whole life. This is why the Northern Ireland (NI) Executive must reconvene and do more for children and families during this brutal and ongoing cost of living crisis, as well as deliver ambitious policies to end child poverty for good.

"The Chancellor talks about making work pay but our research shows almost two million children in poverty live in families where their parents face at least one significant barrier to work, such as a disability, being a carer, or being a lone parent trying to balance work with looking after a young child.

"Until every family has enough money to keep their child warm and well fed, we will continue to help them. That’s why we’re asking the public to get behind our Secret Santa campaign to help us support our most vulnerable children, not just at Christmas but every day."

To become a Secret Santa for Action for Children and support local children across Northern Ireland, visit

Case study:

Financially, this Christmas will be tough for young adult carer Ella, aged 20, and her dad, 48, from County Down.

Ella is a carer for her dad, Spencer, who lives with multiple illnesses, including severe osteoarthritis, sleep apnoea, severe heart issues, and depression, leaving him unable to work. Ella’s journey as a carer for her dad began at 6 years of age, when she discovered her dad had collapsed and was unable to seek medical help, later learning he had suffered a stroke.

Ella says, “We had no other support from friends or family, so I became my dad’s carer from a really young age. I just kind of had to do it – cooking, cleaning, budgeting, feeding, and caring for dad. It’s all part of my life and has been since then!”

While Ella’s role as a carer has been second nature to her from a young age, she has experienced more difficulties this past year when budgeting for her and her dad, seeing prices rise. Ella said, “We moved to Northern Ireland in 2020, searching for lower living costs as we were struggling to keep up with costs in England.

“At first it was easier to manage, but in the past year we’ve noticed prices rising so much, we get way less than we used to. I take the handheld scanner around with me every time I go shopping, because I want to make sure I can afford it when I get to the checkout. It's made me realise how quickly prices are rising, it’s hard to keep up with.”

In September Ella’s child tax credits stopped, which caused a lot of stress and worry for Ella and her dad, as they’ve struggled even more by losing that key part of their already tight budget. Action for Children were able to support during this difficult time. They received vouchers for electricity and food, which helped them through the adjustment as they re-budgeted.

Ella said:

Without Action for Children’s support we don’t have anything to fall back on.

Ella, who is supported by Action for Children

Being a full-time carer for her dad, Ella can only work a couple of hours per day, as she needs to be at home to support her dad. Each month when her wages come in, she immediately sits down and separates out the money.

“I set aside all the money we’ll need for bills. Electricity is absolutely vital for us, as dad needs it for his breathing mask, so we set aside money for electric first and then see what we can afford after that.”

Ella received food vouchers last year in the leadup to Christmas, which meant her, and her dad could have a Christmas dinner together.

“We weren’t able to buy in the Christmas food last year, but a week before Christmas my support worker from Action for Children arrived at the door with lots of lovely Christmas snacks and food for us to enjoy. It just made Christmas special.”

To become a Secret Santa for local families in Northern Ireland visit



Laura Holmes, Media Officer NI, Action for Children: [email protected]

Out of hours 07802 806 679 / [email protected]


Material deprivation analysis:

The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) carried out analysis of UK government data on children in material deprivation on behalf of Action for Children. The annual Family Resources Survey collects data on material deprivation by asking families whether they can afford 21 basic items and activities that are considered to be necessities by the general population.

On average, the median number of items that a child growing up in material deprivation in 2021/22 lacks access to because their family can’t afford them is 8 out of 21 essential items. A family is scored on whether they can afford each item, with more weight given to the items that are most commonly owned among the population. A family’s score across all items is then added together, and those with a score of 25 or more out of 100 are considered to be materially deprived. By focusing on a family’s inability to afford these essential goods and services, material deprivation provides an insight into their actual living conditions and lived experience of poverty.

(*) Please note: Not all questions were asked of all respondents, a few were asked only in certain circumstances – so %s from total population of 14 million children vary:

  • The material deprivation item around having enough bedrooms was only asked when two or more children of the opposite sex are aged 10 years or over were living in the same family.
  • The material deprivation item around going to a playgroup was only asked when children in family were under 6 years old and did not attend primary or private school.
  • The material deprivation item around going on school trip was only asked when there were any dependent children in the family aged 6 years or older, or any children under 6 years of age who attend a primary school or a private or independent school.

Children’s survey:

Censuswide surveyed 2,004 UK children aged 8-18 between 20 and 22 November 2023. Censuswide abides by and employ members of the Market Research Society, follows the MRS code of conduct which is based on the ESOMAR principles and are members of The British Polling Council.

Staff survey:

A separate survey of Action for Children children's services staff was carried out online between 24 October and 13 November 2023. In total, 190 responses were received from frontline practitioners across the UK.

(1) ‘Breaking through the barriers: How we can build better systems to overcome barriers to work and opportunity, guarantee security, and uphold dignity’, Action for Children.

About Action for Children:

Action for Children protects and supports vulnerable children and young people by providing practical and emotional care and support, ensuring their voices are heard and campaigning to bring lasting improvements to their lives. With 426 services across the UK, in schools and online, in 2022/23 we helped 765,905 children, young people and families.