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Going without: Almost one in five children growing up deprived of the basics

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

Action for Children, working with the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), has analysed UK government data on children growing up in material deprivation.

Key findings

  • In 2021/22, there were 2.6 million children in the UK growing up in material deprivation – meaning their families can’t afford the items and activities considered essential to a happy and healthy childhood. That’s almost one in five children (18%).
  • 1.5 million children in material deprivation are also in families with an income below the official poverty line (10% of all children) – meaning they are even more likely to be growing up in severe hardship.
  • Over half of the children growing up materially deprived are under 10 (58%). That’s 1.5 million young children growing up deprived of the essential items and activities they need to get the best start in life – including 900,000 who are also living below the poverty line.
  • Even before the worst of the cost of living crisis and energy price shock, there were 4.2m children in families that can’t save at least £10 a month, 1.2m children in families that can’t keep up with bills, and 800,000 children in families that can’t keep the house warm.

What is material deprivation?

Material deprivation means lacking access to essential items and activities.

Why do we use the term material deprivation?

We often define poverty in terms of income, typically those earning below 60% of the average (median) income for that year. This is also called the ‘poverty line’.

Material deprivation is another way of thinking about and measuring poverty, that instead looks at what people can or cannot afford. Each year, the UK government 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; things like fresh fruit and vegetables, a warm winter coat or going on school trips.

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.

For example, not being able to afford fresh fruit and vegetables everyday has a higher score because it is experienced by only 2% of children. While not being able to afford a one week holiday with family is experienced by 31% of children, and is given a lower score. A family’s score across all items is then added together, and they are considered to be in material deprivation if they have a score of 25 or more out of 100.

Children growing up in material deprivation: the latest data

Across the UK, there were 2.6 million children experiencing material deprivation in 2021/22 – or 18% of all dependent children.

1.5 million children in material deprivation were also in a low-income family. That’s 10% of all dependent children. Here we refer to low-income as a household income of less than 60% of the median, after housing costs are included.

Most of the children in material deprivation are aged under 10 (58%). That’s 1.5 million young children whose parents can’t afford the essential items and activities needed to give them the best start in life.

Number of children in material deprivation, 2021/22, by age

More about material deprivation

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. Material deprivation can therefore reveal poverty that income-based measures might miss: a family may not be classified as in poverty based on its income, but still lack access to basic items and services that are crucial to happy and healthy childhoods.

Material deprivation can also be combined with the income-based poverty measures, like relative and absolute poverty. This provides further insight into families’ living standards, and can help us to identify the children most likely to be experiencing severe hardship.

In 2021/22, 1.1 million children were experiencing material deprivation but not low-income (8%). There are lots of possible reasons for this. Many of these families are not very far above the poverty line, and almost all are earning below the average (median) household income.

For example, our analysis reveals that a quarter have incomes that exceed the official poverty threshold by only £41 a week or less. 50% live in a family whose income exceeds the threshold by £95 a week or less. And 75% live in families whose income is up to £152 a week above the threshold - meaning at least three quarters of these families fall below the median UK household income for that year.

Families can move in and out of poverty quite frequently, particularly if their income fluctuates a lot. Families on medium incomes can also face higher costs that might make it difficult to afford essential items – such having a disability, high debt repayments or caring for extended family members – even though their income is above the poverty line.

Breakdown of the deprivation items

The headline figures capture those families found to be in material deprivation, based on a weighted score of their responses to a set of questions about the affordability of 21 basic items and activities, like fresh fruit and vegetables, a warm home or outdoor space to play. But as well as looking at this aggregate measure, we can also consider each of the 21 deprivation indicators individually. This allows us to take a more granular look at each of these basic items and get a broader insight into what children are missing out on and what families find particularly difficult to afford.

Number and percentage of children in families that can’t afford each material deprivation item, 2021/22

In 2021/22, there were:

  • 4.2m children in families that can’t save at least £10 a month (29%);
  • 3.4m children in families that can’t replace worn out furniture (23%);
  • 2.7m children in families that can’t replace broken electrical goods (like a fridge or washing machine) (19%);
  • 1.2m children in families that can’t keep up with bills (8%);
  • 800,000 children in families that can’t keep the house warm (5%);
  • 300,000 children in families that can’t afford to eat fresh fruit or vegetables each day (2%);
  • 100,000 children whose parents can’t afford a warm winter coat for them (1%).

As well as going without these basic necessities, children are also missing out on activities considered to be important for their social and emotional development:

  • 1.2m children in families that can’t afford to attend organised activity once a week (8%);
  • 700,000 children in families who can’t afford to have friends around for tea/snack once a fortnight (5%) or go on a school trip at least once a term (5%);
  • 600,000 children lack access to outdoor space/facilities to play safely (4%);
  • 200,000 children in families that can’t afford to go to a playgroup once a week (4%) or to celebrate on special occasions (2%).

The analysis was conducted on Households Below Average Income (HBAI) datasets accessed from the UK Data Service.

HBAI data is drawn from the Family Resources Survey (FRS), the main source for high quality estimates of the incomes of households and individuals in the UK. The FRS is a representative survey of over sixteen thousand households in the United Kingdom in 2021/22. Population estimates in this analysis relate to all children in the UK (approximately 14m in 2021/22).

The estimates of material deprivation for 2020/21 are not comparable with previous years due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on data collection. Results by UK nation and region are calculated as a two-year average (2019/20 and 2021/22).

Not all questions on material deprivation in the Family Resources Survey are asked of all respondents, so the percentages will look different for some of the items:

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

Material deprivation by nation and region

Of the four UK nations, children in England and Wales have the highest level of material deprivation across all measures, followed by Scotland and Northern Ireland.

(Note: analysis at the nation and region level is based on a two-year average for 2019/20 and 2021/22. The data for 2020/21 was particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and is not considered as reliable as other years, so has been excluded).

Children in material deprivation by UK nation (average for 2019/20 and 2021/22)

Within England, the North East has the highest proportion of children in material deprivation – 27% of children. It also has the highest proportion of children who are both materially deprived and on a low-income. The East Midlands and East of England have the lowest proportion of children in material deprivation (13% and 14% respectively). London is the region with the most children living in material deprivation (400,000).

Children in material deprivation: nations and regions (average for 2019/20 and 2021/22)

Children are significantly more likely to be growing up materially deprived if they:

  • Are in a single parent family: children in single parent families are almost three times more likely (34%) than children in couple parent families (13%) to be growing up in material deprivation.
  • Have a disabled parent or child in the family: 32% of children in a family with a disabled adult are in material deprivation, compared to 12% in families with no disabled adults. Children with a disability are also more likely to be in material deprivation than those without a disability - a difference of 11 percentage points.
  • Are in a larger family: children in large families (4+ children) are three times more likely to be materially deprived (41%) compared to families with one or two children (14%).
  • Are from an ethnic minority background: 39% of children from a Black ethnic background are in material deprivation, compared to 30% of children from a mixed or multiple ethnic group background, 24% from an Asian background, and 15% of children from a White background.
  • Are in an economically inactive household: 46% of children in families where no adult is in work are materially deprived, compared to 13% where at least one adult is working. As our research has shown, many of the children in poverty or deprivation are in families with significant potential barriers to work.

Children in material deprivation: comparisons between socio-economic groups

Progress on reducing material deprivation a decade ago has long since stalled

The proportion of children growing up materially deprived fell by a quarter in the first half of the last decade, from 24% in 2013 to 18% in 2017. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a key explanation for this is that essential goods – particularly energy, clothing and food costs – were getting cheaper during this earlier period. But this progress has long since stalled, with levels remaining flat since 2016/17.

Children in material deprivation: 2012/13 to 2021/22

The full extent of the cost of living and energy crisis is also not reflected in the latest data on material deprivation. Consequently, it is likely that we will see rates of material deprivation rise in future, as the data catches up with the permanently higher costs families are facing due to the cost of living crisis.