A girl lies on a mattress that looks dirty

What is bed poverty?

Published on
02 November 2023

Ali Cooper, Senior Policy Advisor on Child Poverty at Barnardo's, discusses ‘bed poverty’ and how the cost-of-living crisis is increasing the number of children in poverty across the UK.

You may have heard discussions about families experiencing lots of different types of poverty such as fuel, food, hygiene or period poverty. These things are all caused by not having enough money to afford different kinds of essentials needed to raise happy and healthy children.  Ali told us, "Our research is showing that more and more families are struggling to afford basic things like food, money to pay for heating and electricity, and now safe places to sleep." In our report, No crib for a bed, we focused on the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on bed poverty, and how it is affecting children.  

Bed poverty is just one aspect of child poverty, yet it starkly illustrates the challenges faced by families not having enough money to afford the essentials needed to raise happy and healthy children. 

Lynn Perry 

Barnardo’s CEO 

What is bed poverty? 

Bed poverty is one part of child poverty. Our research found that bed poverty can look different from family to family. It can include: 

  • broken beds and damaged bedding: families can’t afford to replace or repair unsuitable beds or bedding, for example bedding that has gone mouldy 
  • sharing beds and rooms: a number of families in our research were sharing beds with their children as they could not afford separate places for them to sleep 
  • sleeping on the floor: Barnardo’s practitioners mentioned working with parents or children who are sleeping on the floor because they can't afford beds
  • families unable to wash or dry bedding because they can’t afford to pay for energy  
Graphic showing that 681,000 children have had to share a bed when they don't want to.

"We asked YouGov to conduct research on our behalf with parents and children," said Ali. "We found there are over 1 million families where parents have given up their own beds so their child had somewhere to sleep in the last 12 months."

One of the parents in our research, a mum of three children, said, “It’s just so difficult to know where to turn – I have never struggled like we’re struggling now. We can only afford a food budget of £50 a month – and as the boys are sleeping on the floor it’s really hard for them to get to sleep. I have to keep the heating on in the evening to try and make it more comfortable for them, and then I wake up early to turn it on again before they wake up.” 

Graphic showing that over 281,000 families have had to choose between paying for heating or food and getting a new bed or bedding.

How many children are experiencing bed poverty in the UK? 

Currently more than a quarter of children in the UK live in poverty; that’s 4.2 million children (Department for Work and Pensions, 2023). "Between 2021 and 2022, the number of children in poverty rose by 350,000, that’s more than the population of Newcastle," Ali explains. Research published in October 2023 found a million children experienced destitution in the UK last year, an increase of 88% from 2019. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2023). Destitution is the most extreme form of poverty and happens when someone is unable to meet their basic physical needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed.

"Across Barnardo's we are finding people we support such as young carers, families where someone has a disability and young people who have grown up in care who were already having to make difficult financial decisions, are now struggling to afford everyday essentials," says Ali. 

When it comes to bed poverty especially, new polling by YouGov on our behalf found that there are over 1 million families where parents have given up their own beds so their children have had somewhere to sleep in the last 12 months. Of these families 422,000 had parents who slept on a chair or sofa and 138,000 families had a parent who slept on the floor. 

On my daily visits I see the poverty so many children are living in. Good beds and bedding are always lacking and I also often see families sharing mattresses on the floor with no sheets on or badly soiled duvets. These items come very low on the list of items to purchase when families are struggling to make ends meet, especially since the rise in food and heating bills.


Barnardo’s worker who supports parents who are struggling financially

Graphic showing over 187,000 families have not been able to change their children's bedding because they can't afford to wash or dry it.

Being in bed poverty has short and long-term consequences for children.  

“We asked parents with children what the impact of not having a bed of their own is having on their health and wellbeing. They said things like it meant their child had low energy all the time, they found it difficult to concentrate or focus on learning and their child had low self-esteem or had become withdrawn from their peers," Ali says. 

In the longer term growing up in poverty has negative consequences for their achievements in education, their employment prospects and their physical and mental health into adulthood. 

“We worked with several other poverty charities across the country, some who focus specifically on this issue of bed poverty, and they found similar problems and impacts with the people they support,” Ali explains.  

Furniture is expensive and as people struggle more and more to cover the essentials, it is vital that additional support is made available specifically for furniture and appliances. The wider costs of furniture poverty on the NHS, social care and on children’s long-term life chances are vast so we need committed investment now.

Claire Donovan

Head of Policy, Research and Campaigns, End Furniture Poverty 

Graphic showing over 336,000 families have not been able to repair or replace a broken bed.

What is Barnardo’s doing to help families experiencing bed poverty? 

This winter, our frontline staff will be helping to provide essential support for children and families who are using our services and struggling to afford the basics by delivering food, clothes, and essential homewares such as cookers, washing machines, beds and bedding. We need more help to do this work and it’s not a long-term fix. 

Through our influencing work, we’re standing up for every child waking up in a cold home. This means talking to people working in Government about taking the urgent action needed to address child poverty.  

Being able to have a comfortable, warm night’s sleep is fundamental to children being able to learn at school the next day. We know from Buttle UK's own work that bed poverty is one fundamentally linked to child poverty. Ending the two-child limit to benefit payments, an unnecessary policy which pushes families into poverty, is a key recommendation in [No crib for a bed]. This is also a recommendation supported by over 100 members of the End Child Poverty Coalition. We are urging all political parties to commit to scrapping this policy immediately which will lift 250,000 children out of poverty, and give more children the chance of a better night's sleep.

Joseph Howes

CEO of Buttle UK and Chair of the End Child Poverty Coalition 

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    No crib for a bed: the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on bed poverty

    Children need a good night’s sleep in order to thrive, yet our latest research shows that families in crisis are having to prioritise essentials such as food, heating and electricity over things like replacing mouldy bedding or fixing a broken bed.

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* Names have been changed and models used to protect the identities of the young people we help.

7,8, 9, 10, 12 These statistics are taken from No crib for a bed: the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on bed poverty.