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Study reveals 'appalling' rise in destitution across the UK

 

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation research was carried out prior to Covid-19

A new flagship study has revealed an ‘appalling’ rise in destitution in the UK between 2017 and 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report reveals around 2.4 million people in the UK experienced destitution in 2019, a 54% increase since 2017. This included 550,000 children, a 52% increase since 2017.

Inadequate benefit levels and debt deductions, particularly the repayable advance many people are forced to borrow to cover the minimum five-week wait for Universal Credit, are identified in the report as key drivers of destitution. With evidence of rising debt and hardship since Covid-19 hit, there are fears that the pandemic may have pushed people experiencing destitution closer to the brink. The foundation is calling for urgent action to make the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit permanent, to help stem the rising tide of destitution.

The report is the third in a series of Destitution in the UK studies, published every two years by JRF and undertaken by Heriot-Watt University. The report consists of a large-scale survey to generate an estimate of the scale of destitution at the end of 2019, together with interviews with 70 people in spring 2020 after the pandemic hit. Destitution, as defined by the public and experts, occurs when a household cannot afford two or more of the essentials that we all need to live, like shelter, food, heating and clothing.

While single people continue to face the highest risks of destitution, lone parents are now more likely to face destitution than previously. The number of children experiencing destitution in 2019 has risen by 52%, or by an additional 185,000 children compared to 2017.

People who experience destitution in some cases report complex needs such as homelessness, or drug and alcohol problems, but 81% do not. 54% of people experiencing destitution have a chronic health problem or disability.

One in seven (14%) people experiencing destitution are in paid work. This reflects people’s experience of precarious forms of employment, characterised by irregular hours and fluctuating income. One man who was interviewed said: “I was doing some zero contract hours and sometimes they could just terminate my employment.” Several people interviewed after Covid-19 hit had lost their jobs as a direct result of the pandemic, with the majority turning to Universal Credit for support.

Helen Barnard, director of JRF, said: “It is appalling that so many people are going through this distressing and degrading experience, and we should not tolerate it. No one in our society should be unable to afford to eat or keep clean and sheltered. We can and must do more.

“The pandemic has shown just how much we want to look out for each other in difficult times, but the sobering truth is that even before Covid-19 hit, the number of people in destitution was rising sharply.

“Our social security system should act as an anchor to hold us steady when we’re pulled down by powerful currents like job loss, illness or relationship breakdown. But right now, our system is not doing enough to protect people from destitution.

“The government can act now to confirm that the £20 boost added to Universal Credit will be made permanent and extended to people receiving legacy benefits. And by working with people with experience of receiving social security, the government can re-design our systems so that they keep people afloat, rather than drag people down.”

While single people continue to face the highest risks of destitution, lone parents are now more likely to face destitution than previously. The number of children experiencing destitution in 2019 has risen by 52%, or by an additional 185,000 children compared to 2017.

People who experience destitution in some cases report complex needs such as homelessness, or drug and alcohol problems, but 81% do not. 54% of people experiencing destitution have a chronic health problem or disability.

One in seven (14%) people experiencing destitution are in paid work. This reflects people’s experience of precarious forms of employment, characterised by irregular hours and fluctuating income. One man who was interviewed said: “I was doing some zero contract hours and sometimes they could just terminate my employment.” Several people interviewed after Covid-19 hit had lost their jobs as a direct result of the pandemic, with the majority turning to Universal Credit for support.

A UK Government spokesman said: “Making sure every child gets the best start in life is central to our efforts to level up opportunity across the country, which is why we have raised the living wage for all and boosted welfare support by billions, including £170 million to help families stay warm and well-fed over Christmas.”

 

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