The number of children living in poverty across the UK has hit a record high, with campaigners saying they are being failed and forgotten.

There were an estimated 4.33 million children in households in relative low income after housing costs in the year to March 2023.

This is up from 4.22 million the previous year and is above the previous high of 4.28 million in the year to March 2020.

Children in the UK living in poverty
(PA Graphics)

The latest figure is the highest since comparable records for the UK began in 2002/03.

A household is considered to be in relative poverty if it is below 60% of the median income after housing costs.

Children’s Commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza said she was “horrified” by the figures as she called for welfare reform including auto-enrolment for free school meals and more free breakfast clubs.

She said: “But we need to go much further, faster to support these families, because no child should grow up in poverty in the sixth richest country in the world.”

Meghan Meek-O’Connor, senior child poverty policy adviser at Save the Children UK, said: “Today 4.3 million children are being failed. It is an outrage that 100,000 more children are in poverty – they are being forgotten.

“These shocking figures should be an urgent wake-up call to all of us, especially the UK Government. We cannot go on like this. There is no reason children should be going without food, heating, toys, or beds.

“Families need an adequate social security system that keeps children out of poverty, and provides them with a basic level of safety and security.”

Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), said: “In a general election year, nothing should be more important to our political leaders than making things better for the country’s poorest kids.

“But child poverty has reached a record high, with 4.3 million kids now facing cold homes and empty tummies.”

People in the UK living in poverty
(PA Graphics)

Barnardo’s chief executive Lynn Perry said the statistics show “the Government has let down children”, equating the 100,000 year-on-year rise to the population of Eastbourne.

She said: “Children can’t be happy and healthy if they are going to bed in a cold home, on an empty stomach.

“Living in poverty means children miss out on opportunities and the activities that make childhood fun and support their development.”

Calling on the Government to “urgently focus on reducing child poverty”, she and the other campaigning organisations repeated demands to scrap the two-child limit on benefit payments and for an essentials guarantee to ensure households can cover basic costs such as food and household bills.

The estimated total number of people in relative low income was at 14.35 million in the year to March 2023, down from 14.40 million the previous year, according to official Government figures.

Social change organisation the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) said absolute poverty – another measure which looks at households with less than 60% of the median income in 2010/11, uprated by inflation – would usually be expected to fall year on year as a nation becomes more prosperous.

But Thursday’s figures showed a rise for the second year in a row, with 600,000 more people, half of them children, living in absolute poverty – equivalent to 25% of children.

There were an estimated 11.99 million people in absolute poverty in the UK in the year to March 2023, up from 11.39 million the previous year.

JRF chief analyst Peter Matejic said: “The annual poverty figures published today confirm that the Government failed to protect the most vulnerable from the cost-of-living crisis.

“Absolute poverty, the Government’s preferred measure of poverty, has risen for the second year in a row. This is as big as we have seen for 40 years.

“At the same time, there is little to celebrate in the slight fall in overall relative poverty levels. This is largely due to the incomes of middle-income households falling, rather than people on the lowest incomes being better off. This is also likely to reverse now that earnings are growing faster than inflation.”

He said the statistics show “just how far away our social security system is from adequately supporting people who have fallen on hard times” and said that, with an election looming, all political parties “must treat this rise in poverty with the seriousness it deserves” by setting out their plans to tackle it.

Labour said the statistics on children in poverty are “horrifying” and pledged to “fix this Tory failure yet again with a new cross-government child poverty strategy” should it win the general election.

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride said the Government had “stepped in with the biggest cost-of-living package in Europe, worth an average of £3,800 per household”, which he said has “prevented 1.3 million people from falling into poverty in 2022/23”.

He also pointed to the uprating of benefits and pensions from April and the extension of the Household Support Fund.

Downing Street said the statistics must be looked at in the context of covering a period of high inflation and said cost-of-living pressures on many families have now “eased”, but it acknowledged others still face challenges.

The estimated number of pensioners living in relative poverty after housing costs fell slightly year-on-year, to 1.92 million from 2.05 million the previous financial year.

But Independent Age said the figures remain high and “show that poverty in later life continues to be a major issue that isn’t getting the attention it deserves”.

The Government said there was a “statistically significant increase in the percentage of pensioners in material deprivation” – providing an indication of people’s ability to access or afford a range of everyday goods and services – compared to the year to March 2020.

An estimated 8% of pensioners were in material deprivation in the year to March 2023, two percentage points up from 2020 and the highest level since the year to March 2016.