Impact of poverty

31% of children live in poverty in the UK, creating a massive risk to their aspirations, health, achievements and wellbeing. Schools are an essential resource in mitigating this impact and creating opportunity.

With a report in 2018 highlighting then that the problem was expected to worsen as the earnings gap grows and planned benefit cuts were implemented, the impact of Covid and further benefit / tax changes is expected to have further impacted this vulnerable group.

The children’s life chances are dependent upon a complex combination of low household income, a lack of equal opportunities and social exclusion. While some children who grow up in low-income households will go on to achieve their full potential, many others will not. Poverty places strains on family life and excludes children from the everyday activities of their peers.

Tackling child poverty will help to improve children’s lives today, and it will also enhance their life chances: enabling them to make the most of their talents, achieve their full potential in life and pass on the benefits to their own children.

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Definition of poverty

There is no one definition of poverty, however one commonly used measure by government is:

“Households where the household income is below 60% of the average.” House of Commons, 2019

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The impact of poverty can be devastating:

Families are unable to provide the basic needs like heat, food, bedding. In some families the child sleeps on a mattress on the floor with no sheets.

Mothers go without food so their children can eat. This then impacts on the parenting capacity and mental health.

Buttle Trust, 2019

Extent of poverty

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a turbulent time when everyone has felt some instability and insecurity, but analysis of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that many more people are at risk of being ‘cast adrift into poverty’.

  • 4.2 million children living in poverty – an increase of 1/2 million in the last five years (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2021).
  • Nearly half of children in lone parent families live in poverty, compared with one in four of those in couple families (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2021).
  • It is estimated that 8.4 million people live in food poverty – defined as the inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet (, 2019).
  • Research shows that food bank users are more likely to have dependent children, with single parent households and people with disabilities being disproportionately affected (Human Rights Watch, 2019)
  • Work does not guarantee a route out of poverty, 2014 research showing that then nearly two thirds of all children in poverty lived in a working family (CPAG, 2014)

Many of the groups who were already struggling with poverty have borne the brunt of the covid pandemic, including part time workers, low paid workers, those in accommodation and hospitality services, lone parent families, black and ethnic minority households and those in rented properties.

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Impact on children

Poverty can impact in a number of ways.  For children it may:

  • lead to anxiety due to worries about their parents, siblings, being singled out as different.
  • impact on their educational attainment as they are in poor housing, or homeless with little or no space to concentrate.
  • lead to them not being able to take part due to lack of funds.
  • lead them into being criminally exploited as it appears to be way to make money.
  • lead to them being bullied for being different.
  • mean that they are hungry throughout the day and therefore not able to focus.
  • mean that parents are not able to focus on the needs of the children due to worrying about money (National Education Union, 2018)
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Poverty and safeguarding

Parents struggling to make ends meet can feel anger or sometimes guilt at the unfairness they see impacting on their children. They do a tremendous job of minimising the impact wherever they can, and ensure their children are well cared for and feel valued.

Poverty can be a factor in children being at risk due to the stresses it creates in families and the limitations it places on choice, but by itself is not a safeguarding matter. However poverty can led to issues which are safeguarding matters:

Where you have concerns that a child may be being neglected, consider what help you can offer and follow your safeguarding procedures.

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Spotting the signs

Organisations working with children are in a key position to support children in poverty. Research tells is that often children and parents will not tell us what is happening and it is knowing the children that flags concerns in the first instance:

  • tiredness;
  • persistent hunger;
  • poor concentration;
  • lower attainment;
  • non-attendance on school trips / involvement in school activities where there is a cost;
  • stress / anxiety.
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What you can do

Create an open and approachable culture in your setting – help pupils think about the issues and attitudes behind poverty, particularly in relation to equality. Create aspiration and opportunity through high quality education, while being aware of the limits and pressures on families, children and young people.

  • Be aware of the effects of child poverty;
  • Support pupils and families;
  • Sign-post to supportive services, ensuring that this is through as many different routes as possible (e.g. leaflets, posters, conversations, etc.);
  • Raise any concerns with your designated safeguarding lead.

Consider how vulnerabilities might impact on individuals – think about the increased risk of exploitation and the barriers in place to attainment or to making safe decisions. Talk to children in advance about holiday periods and assess the risks of ‘holiday hunger’, loneliness and neglect. Recognise the stresses around key times of year such as the commercial pressures around Christmas.

Consider avenues of support including local early help mechanisms.


  • Nothing Left in the Cupboards: Austerity, Welfare Cuts, and the Right to Food in the UK

    Tens of thousands of families in the United Kingdom every year do not have enough food to live on and are turning to sources of non-state charitable aid. This new phenomenon of growing hunger for some of the least well-off people in the country, has emerged alongside a wide-ranging and draconian restructuring of the country’s welfare system since 2010.

  • What it is really like for children growing up in poverty in the UK in 2019 – Part 1

    The Buttle Trust surveyed support workers to find out about their current experiences of working with children in poverty. While all these individuals are used to seeing child poverty on a daily basis, their feedback illustrates the extent of some of the challenges that families are currently facing.

  • UK Poverty 2021

    This annual report examines the nature and scale of UK poverty and the effect of the UK poverty rate on the people gripped by it. The report examines how UK poverty rates have changed in our society over the last few years, as well as over the longer term. The research focuses particularly on changes to poverty among children and workers, as well as giving an overview of trends among pensioners and other groups.

  • What’s poverty like?

    The Child Poverty Action Group worked with students from the London College of Communication to show what poverty is like. These animations are the students’ interpretations, based on the experience of children living in poverty.

  • The Relationship Between Poverty and Child Abuse and Neglect: New Evidence (2022)

    This project adds to the work of the Child Welfare Inequalities Project with a critical review of new evidence about the relationship between poverty and child abuse and neglect published between 2016 and 2021. It updates a previous review published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The studies confirmed that poverty and inequality are key drivers of harm to children. The evidence base for this is much stronger than in 2016.

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  • Training resources for DSLs to use in team meetings
  • Reference documents for additional information
  • Handout for school staff summarising child sexual exploitation
  • Quiz to test staff understanding
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