Over one million children in the UK faced destitution in the past year, unable to be properly fed, clothed, cleaned, or kept warm due to their families’ financial struggles. This alarming statistic was uncovered in a significant study that highlights the growing issue of extreme poverty in the country.
According to the study, there has been a significant increase in severe material hardship, which is now not uncommon. This is due to cuts in benefits and rising living costs, causing struggling households to increasingly depend on regular charitable assistance.
Advocates for poverty alleviation, educators, and workers in the welfare field have raised concerns about the harmful consequences of extreme poverty, especially on children. These include physical health issues, malnutrition, mental illness, loneliness, school absenteeism, and disruptive behavior in the classroom.
In 2022, a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) found that approximately 1.8 million households in the UK, consisting of nearly 3.8 million individuals, including 1 million children, experienced extreme poverty at some point. Half of these households had to survive on less than £85 per week after paying for housing, and a quarter had no income at all.
The head of JRF, Paul Kissack, expressed disapproval towards the government for disregarding the increase in destitution. He stated, “The government is not incapable of taking action; they are deliberately choosing not to.” Kissack emphasized the pressing need to address destitution as a moral duty that reflects our humanity as a nation, and called for political leadership in this mission.
Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, from Heriot-Watt University and a co-author of the research, denounced the increasing levels of poverty as “morally unacceptable”. She also stated that the UK government has failed in its duty to support the most vulnerable members of society. In order to address this urgent societal issue, she urged all levels of government to take immediate action.
Destitution is when someone is unable to fulfill their essential physical requirements such as staying warm, dry, clean, and well-fed. This can be due to a lack of necessary items like clothing, heating, shelter, or food, or it can be because their household income falls below a certain level after accounting for housing expenses. The minimum income threshold varies, with a single adult being £95 per week and a couple with two children being £205 per week.
The latest installment of research, which has been ongoing since 2015, also involved interviewing individuals about their encounters with extreme poverty. The results revealed:
Grown-ups stated that they often struggled to pay for more than one meal per day and would sometimes go without eating in order to provide food for their children. A majority (61%) admitted to experiencing hunger within the last month. Many relied on food banks or family members for their food supply.
51% of impoverished adults frequently did not have access to personal hygiene items like shampoo and toothpaste, and cleaning products. They often had to rely on food banks for these necessities. One participant even had to take out a loan to purchase incontinence pads for their disabled child.
The study found that people did not purchase new clothing and footwear, considering them to be essential items. Many adults reported wearing old or worn-out clothes, and only buying new ones, such as school uniforms and trainers, for their children.
The study showed that destitution, which used to mainly affect immigrants who were not eligible for social security support, is now more commonly experienced by UK citizens who receive welfare benefits. The number of families experiencing destitution has also been increasing. Additionally, one out of every 10 destitute households had at least one working adult.
Individuals with disabilities and those with ongoing chronic health issues, as well as households of Black British, Caribbean, and African descent, were disproportionately affected by destitution. The amount of single parents experiencing destitution nearly tripled between 2019 and 2022, and the number of children facing destitution has also tripled since 2017.
The study revealed a significant decrease in government aid for those facing extreme poverty, resulting in a greater dependence on assistance from non-profit organizations and family members. In 2022, there were over 574,000 individuals in dire need who received support from food banks, a significant increase from 214,000 in 2019.
The research highlighted the significant impact that volunteer-run food banks have on the most impoverished families, despite concerns about their capacity to keep up with increasing demand. According to one staff member at a charitable organization, there has been a shift from worrying about food banks opening to worrying about food banks shutting down due to the current state of our country.
According to the study, the limited benefits provided under universal credit put a single adult receiving the basic rate of £85 per week in a state of extreme poverty, as they fell below the destitution threshold of £95 per week. The study also found that the restriction on benefits for families with more than two children and the use of benefit sanctions were additional factors contributing to destitution. The study concluded that the social security system in the UK has significant flaws.
The JRF urged all political parties to pledge to a strategy to eliminate extreme poverty, which would involve revising benefit rates to establish an “essentials guarantee.” This would ensure that universal credit is enough to shield households from severe financial struggles.
According to a government representative, our top concern is decreasing inflation as it will benefit the purchasing power of individuals.
In 2010, there were 1.7 million less people living in extreme poverty, with 400,000 of them being children. However, we are aware that there are still families facing financial difficulties. To assist them, we are offering an average of £3,300 in household support, and have raised benefits by more than 10% this year. Additionally, we are once again increasing the national living wage.
“In order to assist individuals in overcoming poverty through employment, we are allocating £3.5bn towards aiding thousands in securing jobs. We are also removing obstacles for parents by implementing the largest ever increase in free childcare services, offering 30 free hours of care for working parents and providing support for children from nine months of age until they begin school. This will result in eligible parents saving an average of £6,500 per year.”
I frequently experience hunger at 3am when I wake up.
Clare Willsher, a resident of Bexleyheath in south-east London, describes destitution as a complete nightmare. She and her husband, along with their two teenage sons, have experienced many challenges in life, but nothing compares to the struggle of destitution.
In the past two years, there has been a significant increase in the prices of energy and food. This happened at the same time as her husband became ill with cancer and had to stop working. They had financial obligations and their income decreased while their expenses skyrocketed.
Universal credit covers the rent for their privately rented residence, but the standard allowance intended for daily expenses is not sufficient for an entire month. The family receives disability benefits for their sons, which they believe is crucial to their financial stability.
Putting food on the family table takes time and ingenuity. A weekly grocery budget of £35 has to be supplemented with trips to food banks. Some weeks, when other bills have to be paid, she has had as little as £10 for food.
She and her spouse frequently miss meals – “we never eat three times a day” – in order to make sure their sons always have sufficient food. However, going without is difficult: “I often feel hungry at three in the morning,” she explains.
She remembers last winter as being dreadful. Due to the high cost of energy, they could hardly ever turn on the heat, even when it was extremely cold. At times, they had to turn it on just to dry their sons’ school uniforms.
She explains that not being able to pay for things they once took for granted can be disheartening. For their wedding anniversary, she and her husband went out for a single drink as a symbolic gesture, but it ended up leaving them financially strained. She looks back on it with a tinge of remorse.