One in three children fear no merry Christmas for friend or classmate this year

Monday 11 December 2023
Boy looking into the camera holding a teddy bear

New research also finds 2.6million UK children are facing a bleak festive season on the breadline

  • New Action for Children research finds around a third of children aged 8 to eighteen fear that a friend or classmate won’t get any presents (33%) or celebrate Christmas this year (32%) because their family can’t afford it.
  • As a new analysis of official figures shows nearly one in five UK children (2.6million) are living in material deprivation, going without the basics like warmth, fresh food or a celebration this Christmas – with more than half (1.5million) under 10 years old.
  • 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 a pregnant mum who "hadn’t eaten for three days as she was prioritising the food for her children". Another describes young children spending a weekend scared in candlelit gloom as their parents had no money to top up the electricity.
  • The public are encouraged to be a Secret Santa for Action for Children to help a vulnerable child.

As millions get set to celebrate Christmas, new Action for Children research finds around a third of children aged 8 to eighteen fear that a friend or classmate won’t get any presents (33%) or celebrate Christmas this year (32%) because their family can’t afford it.

To support its annual Secret Santa campaign to help the country’s most vulnerable children, the charity also 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 five (18%) UK children - 2.6 million - are materially deprived, meaning their families can’t afford the basic items and activities that the Government considers essential to a happy and healthy childhood. Of these, more than half (58%) - 1.5 million - are under 10 years old.

The research also 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 whose parents can’t afford to keep the house warm (5%);
  • 700,000 who can’t afford to have friends around for dinner 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 the 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;
  • Three 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;
  • 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 described having to step up her support of a pregnant mum who shared that she "hadn’t eaten for three days as she was prioritising the food for her children". Another worker talked of a family with three children under 12 who spent a weekend in the dark as they had no money to buy electricity. The children told the support worker, "… it had been scary in the night with just candles for light".

One "traumatised" young person was "so worried about not being able to afford their energy bills … they [were] having cold showers, not using any heating, avoiding cooking and using the lights as little as possible." Many Action for Children workers’ day jobs now increasingly include having to provide poverty relief before any other support, as one admitted that most of their time "is taken up by making sure the children have basic provisions and warm clothing."

Paul Carberry, chief executive at Action for Children, said: "The magic of Christmas begins in childhood. But for children on the breadline up and down the UK, 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 UK Government must do more for them 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(1) shows that 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."

Jeordan and Sean

Sean is a full-time carer for his partner Jeordan, who is unable to work due to severe and chronic back pain.

Case study:

Financially, this Christmas will be tough for South West England parents Jeordan, 28, and Sean, 29.

The family is so scared of falling into more debt that they’re leaving the heating off unless it’s below freezing and instead wrap themselves and the children in extra blankets. Both parents are also making sacrifices to keep on top of their finances.

When asked what sort of special occasion they were planning for Christmas this year, Jeordan replied: "Our support worker is trying to source a turkey for our Christmas Dinner as we can’t afford any of the ones in the shops. We haven't been able to get each other gifts this Christmas as what we have goes towards the children."

To become a Secret Santa for Action for Children visit



Huw Beale, Media Manager, Action for Children: 07718 114 038 / [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.