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Five million people to face ‘distressing’ destitution post-Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic is predicted to drive more people to the brink say Joseph Rowntree Foundation as they estimate half a million children already live without shelter, food, heating or clothing
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is calling for a change.

Destitution in the UK is predicted to double following the Covid-19 pandemic, a new report has warned, after revealing the number of families and children falling into extreme poverty was on the rise even before the crisis.

Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) charity and Heriot-Watt University estimated 2.4 million people experienced destitution in 2019, which meant they could not afford two or more essentials that we all need to live, including shelter, food, heating or clothing.

That figure increased by more than half in just two years and there was a similar rise in the number of children living in destitution. A total of 550,000 kids went without essentials, up 52 per cent since 2017.

Helen Barnard, JRF director, 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. “

JRF blamed inadequate benefit levels and debt deductions for the dramatic rise, considering borrowing to cover the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment a key driver of destitution. The charity says that the £20 increase in Universal Credit payments – introduced by the Government as more than 5.7 million turned to the benefits system during the pandemic – must be made permanent to prevent further hardship.

Heriot-Watt forecasts, based on separate research carried out for national food bank charity The Trussell Trust, suggest destitution will double as a result of the pandemic and its economic fall-out even taking into account increased welfare measures.

No child in Britain should be hungry or without essentials

JRF’s report is part of ongoing work with Heriot-Watt University to understand destitution in the UK, publishing a new report every two years taking into account a large-scale survey at the end of 2019 as well as interviews with 70 people at the start of the pandemic.

In the two years since the last report there has been a noticeable rise in destitution in northern areas of England, particularly the North East, while lone parents are now more likely to face destitution than in previous years. 

One in seven people trapped in destitution are in paid work which JRF says highlights the number of people experiencing precarious forms of employment with irregular hours and fluctuating income. Several people interviewed lost their jobs due to Covid and turned to Universal Credit for support.

Barnard says the benefit system “is not doing enough to protect people from destitution” as research showed half of people experiencing destitution in the survey were claiming or had applied for Universal Credit.

One woman who was interviewed for the research said: “You start Universal Credit in debt, because you have to take that advance. If you’ve got enough money to live on, you wouldn’t claim Universal Credit, so I don’t see how there’s anyone on Universal Credit that can survive without that advance.” 

This impact is why JRF is joining a whole host of anti-poverty campaigners in charities in demanding that the £20 Universal Credit increase is made permanent. Under current plans, the boost is set to be scrapped in April 2021 which would mean 6.2 million families would lose £1,040 from their annual budget and face greater risk of destitution.

The charity also wants the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment to be scrapped and investment in local welfare assistance to allow councils to provide direct cash support to people in crisis.

Barnard added: “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 redesign our systems so that they keep people afloat, rather than drag people down.” 

The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the difficulties people face while destitute.

Closed libraries have cut off internet access, while people reported problems in accessing food bank support with referral agencies such as Job Centres affected by the pandemic.

The sheer scale of the issue is unacceptable in one of the world’s richest countries

Others interviewed for the report told of paying off rent arrears with credit cards while some struggled to meet their housing costs and were left fearing eviction once the eviction ban ended in September. The Government’s ‘winter truce’ is due to start later this week, halting evictions until January 11.

The report’s lead author, Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, from Heriot-Watt University, said: “The sheer scale of the issue is unacceptable in one of the world’s richest countries and starkly reveals the devastating impact of the gaps, flaws and deductions in Universal Credit and other aspects of the social security system that lead to destitution by design.”

Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Reynolds said that “no child in Britain should be hungry or without essentials”.

The Government pointed to their Covid Winter Grant Scheme to underline how they are protecting vulnerable families over winter.

A government spokesperson 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 £170m to help families stay warm and well-fed over Christmas.”