Social Justice

Families left with 'nothing' as cost of living payments fail to cover essentials: 'My bank account is empty'

A major new report from MPs revealed cost of living payments were not enough for benefits claimants, particularly those in larger families who have had to stretch it further

benefits recipient

Joseph De-Ville, a dad who receives universal credit. Image: Supplied

Families have been left with “nothing” in their bank accounts and forced to make sacrifices as cost of living payments and benefits fail to cover the essentials.

“There is nothing left in the account right now,” Joseph De-Ville, a 48-year-old dad from Cornwall, told The Big Issue. “My bank balance is empty. We’re living off basically what we’ve got here, and we just have to wait for our next benefit payment which for us is next week.”

A major new report from MPs in the Work and Pensions Committee has found that the one-off payments were “not a sufficient response to meet the scale” of the cost of living crisis and “many people in receipt of the payments could not meet their essential costs”.

It comes following findings from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that a million children faced destitution last year. This means their families were unable to meet their basic needs of keeping them warm, dry, clean and fed. 

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Although cost of living payments provided temporary relief to millions of households, the Work and Pensions Committee report raised “concern around the lack of dedicated support for families” during the crisis.

“The largest flaw in the payments is that family size is not taken into account and as a result the payments, at most, provided temporary relief,” the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) points out in the report. Larger families have higher costs and yet the flat rate of the cost of living payments ignores this.

“What makes me laugh about that is we get the one cost of living payment between us,” De-Ville says. “I don’t get how that works. Hang on a minute. How come because we’re partners we get just one payment between us? It seems very unfair that we’ve got to stretch ours to cover our entire family.”

According to the Work and Pensions Committee report, the basic nature of the ad hoc payment system means it is not possible to vary the size of payments to take into account family size or the additional needs of certain groups.

Save the Children says that “the fact that they were paid as a lump sum and at a flat rate meant that many families did not get the support they needed”.

De-Ville lives with his partner and her two children, and he also has two children of his own. His various health conditions including Asperger’s Syndrome mean his GP has said he is unfit for work. He claims personal independence payment (PIP) and he receives universal credit jointly with his partner, but it is not enough for their entire family. 

“We shouldn’t be living in a time where children are still struggling,” he said. “It seems like sometimes we’re going back to the Dark Ages where children are struggling to even find food to eat. The elderly are trying to decide between putting the heating on or not. It’s just really horrible.”

Nanda Haris, a 40-year-old single mum with two young children living in Edinburgh, has struggled to find work which fits around her childcare. She claims universal credit and has received cost of living payments, but she is struggling to cope.

“I was always working,” she said. “But there was a lot of trouble for my children. They can’t be independent and it was stressful for me. It’s not easy for them. It was so stressful for me and I had to tell the Jobcentre: ‘At least I tried.’”



De-Ville and his family have had to downsize their house, and they have council tax debt which they are having to gradually pay off. “All of it has had a real effect,” he said “to the point I have had to add on extra medication. I’m now on antipsychotic to help me with anxiety. It is having an effect on my mental health, very much so. 

“Am I scared to go places? Yes I am. Am I afraid to go to the local community centre? Yes, because I don’t feel I belong. I’m afraid of saying something that I shouldn’t say, because somebody might think that I’m being irrational, because I’m on benefits.”

Nanda Haris, who feels the pressures of the cost of living as a single mother. Image: Supplied

It is also having an impact on Haris’s mental health. “I’m really struggling. There’s also the electric to cover with the key card. It’s always a worry. I’m always watching: how much left? How much left? It’s really affecting my mental health.”

De-Ville and Haris take part in the Changing Realities project, which works with more than 100 parents and carers across the UK and the University of York to document life on a low-income and push for change.

Haris has previously spoken in the Scottish Parliament about the cost of living pressures for single parents. “I like to speak up,” she said. “I like to speak about what happened in my life. I don’t like hiding my life. If we are struggling, how can people know how to help and support us if we hide?”

Charities are calling for ministers to make changes to help people like Haris and De-Ville. Many want the government to stop relying on “sticking plasters” like cost of living payments and make changes to the social security system to protect people in the long-term.

Nine in 10 low-income households on universal credit are currently going without essentials, according to the Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation. That is because universal credit claimants are at least £35 short of the money they need to survive each week.

The charities want an ‘essentials guarantee’ to be introduced so that benefits claimants can afford the basics they need to survive as a bare minimum. 

The Work and Pensions Committee advises if cost of living payments are repeated, the government should conduct an analysis of the value of the support received by low-income families with children compared to the support received by single people and couples. 

“I hate to say it,” De-Ville said, “but because of my disabilities, I get PIP and I’m slightly better off. But even being slightly better off isn’t enough. If I didn’t have PIP, and I don’t know where I would be. 

“It sounds horrible putting it that way. But without the limited capacity payment and the PIP payment, I really don’t know how people are actually making ends meet on the standard basic benefits.”

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