Posted: 08 May 2019

What is needed to prevent more families being pulled into destitution?

It's not right that families should be unable to afford to eat, stay warm, dry and clean. However, over 1.5 million people in the UK, including 365,000 children, were pulled into destitution during 2017, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s research.

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The consequences of financial crisis

In this research, parents repeatedly said they went without food themselves to protect their children from hunger, one telling us:

‘I’ve mainly been living on soup just so my little boy can have what he needs really.’

They made similar sacrifices to afford clothes for their children as they grew. And we heard how people desperately scraped together essential toiletries like nappies or toilet paper. One parent recalls; 'the first time I went to the foodbank they gave me toilet roll, but last time I went they didn't have any. […] I went to a public toilet and stole some.’

How poverty and financial shocks pull people into destitution

There is no single cause of destitution. But typically, sustained poverty weakens people’s ability to withstand even minor financial shocks, which then tip them over the edge.

The most common triggers include debt, benefit delays and sanctions, health problems and unaffordable housing.

The rollout of Universal Credit has caused many problems. Surviving a minimum five-week wait for the first payment of Universal Credit can be impossible for those without savings:

‘They made me go eight weeks without any money…I did have to live basically out of a food bank… [and]… how can I pay for heating and that when I didn't have any money coming in?’

Claimants can get an upfront ‘advance payment’ but must repay this loan through deductions from their subsequent benefit payments, again leaving too little to live on.

Local council welfare schemes are not the anchor they should be

We all rely on public services like the NHS in an emergency. Similarly, a council’s local welfare scheme - which provide crisis support such as food, money for heating or replacing a broken fridge - should act as an anchor when families face a financial storm. 

However, the proportion of destitute people reporting help from these schemes fell sharply by 28 percentage points between 2015 and 2017. This reflects The Children’s Society’s findings that one in seven areas in England now have no local welfare scheme, as cash-strapped councils cut back.

Disrupt the currents that lead to poverty and destitution 

Those relying on help from charities and churches rose by 21 percentage points over the same period. This demonstrates our compassion and belief as a society that we should help protect each other from harm. Our political leaders must follow suit.

They should start by ensuring no one waits longer than two weeks for their first Universal Credit payment, without relying on advances that force people into debt.

But people must also have access to adequate emergency support if all else fails. Local welfare schemes must therefore be bolstered with protected funding, national minimum standards, and stronger coordination with local services.

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By Iain Porter
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