Monday, December 11

More than a million people in UK living in poverty



More than a million people in the UK are so poor they cannot afford to eat properly, keep clean or stay warm and dry, according to a groundbreaking attempt to measure the scale of destitution in Britain.

A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) found that 184,500 households experienced a level of poverty in a typical week last year that left them reliant on charities for essentials such as food, clothes, shelter and toiletries.

More than three-quarters of destitute people reported going without meals, while more than half were unable to heat their home. Destitution affected their mental health, left them socially isolated and prone to acute feelings of shame and humiliation.

Although the study could not demonstrate that destitution had increased in recent years, it said this would be a plausible conclusion because of related evidence showing austerity-era rises in severe poverty, food bank use, homelessness and benefit sanction rates.

In 2015, there were 668,000 destitute households containing 1,252,000 people, including 312,000 children. The study said this was an underestimate because the data did not capture poor households who eschewed charity handouts or used only state-funded welfare services

Julia Unwin, chief executive of JRF, said: “It is simply unacceptable to see such levels of severe poverty in our country in the 21st century. Governments of all stripes have failed to protect people at the bottom of the income scale from the effects of severe poverty, leaving many unable to feed, clothe or house themselves and their families.”

Researchers called on the government to monitor destitution levels annually to better understand how people in poverty slipped into extreme hardship and to examine what could be done to close the holes in the welfare safety net.

Destitution was defined by researchers as reliance on a weekly income so low (£70 for a single adult, £140 for a couple with children after housing costs) that basic essentials were unaffordable.

People who met at least two of six measures over the course of a month, including eating fewer than two meals a day for two or more days, inability to heat or light their home for five days or sleeping rough for one or more nights, were also deemed to be destitute.

The most common causes of destitution were unsustainable debt repayments to public authorities such as council tax arrears, together with high rents and benefit delays and sanctions. These triggered financial shocks that pushed already poor households into periods of severe poverty often lasting months.

Nearly four-fifths of people who fell into destitution in 2015 were born in the UK, with younger single men most at risk. Migrants, who face restricted access to jobs and benefits, were disproportionately likely to become destitute.

High destitution rates were found in former industrial areas in the north-west and north-east of England, Scotland, south Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as inner London. These areas typically had high unemployment and above average levels of long-term sickness and disability.

Detailed interviews with 80 destitute people found that 30% had benefits sanctioned. More than half of this group directly linked the “abrupt impact” of having their benefits stopped with being unable to afford basic living essentials.

Although paid work was seen by respondents as a way out of destitution, this was seen by some as hard to come by, while high housing costs meant that, in some cases, having a job was not enough to stave off severe hardship. One in 20 destitute households had someone in work.

State support for destitute people was patchy, the study found. A third of interviewees had drawn on local council welfare schemes for help, but their experiences were mixed, while none of those who had benefits sanctioned had received hardship funds from the jobcentre.

A government spokesman said: “The truth is that relative poverty is at the lowest level since the 1980s and the number of children in poverty has fallen by 300,000 since 2010.

“This report ignores a number of measures we’ve brought in to improve life chances, including the ‘national living wage’, the extension of free childcare to 30 hours and increases to the personal allowance. We also continue to spend £80bn on working age benefits to ensure a strong safety net for those who need it most.”

Prof Suzanne Fitzpatrick, director of the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Environment and Real Estate at Heriot-Watt University and one of the authors of the report, said: “This report has shown that destitution is intrinsically linked to long-term poverty, with many people forced into destitution by high costs, unaffordable bills or a financial shock such as a benefit sanction or delay.

“More coordinated debt-collection practices, particularly from DWP [the Department for Work and Pensions], local councils and utility companies, could help to avoid small debts tipping people in to destitution.”

The study included analysis of more than 40 official datasets, an in-depth week-long census survey of charity service users in 10 UK locations and interviews with destitute people.