Social Justice

Millions of people on universal credit do not have enough money to live

Charities, NGOs and social enterprises are calling for an "essentials guarantee" to ensure everyone can afford the basics needed to live

universal credit

One reader gives his personal experience of working on the universal credit helpline. Image: Unsplash

Millions of people in the UK are going hungry and cold, sacrificing household basics and unable to pay their bills because the universal credit is not enough to live on. 

Now more than 90 charities and organisations are calling on political leaders to guarantee that people will be able to afford the basics when receiving state benefits. 

“We all deserve the dignity of staying warm, fed and protected from poverty,” said Polly Jones, head of Scotland for food bank charity the Trussell Trust. “For too long people have been going without because social security payments are not based on a real reflection of life’s costs and are being pushed deeper into hardship as a result.”

Nine in 10 low-income households on universal credit are currently going without essentials, the charities warn. That is because universal credit claimants are £35 short of the money they need to survive each week, according to recent analysis from the Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) who are leading the campaign. 

A single person needs around £120 each week just to have enough to afford the essentials, according to conservative estimates. But universal credit is only £85 each week. 

“We must remind political leaders that, whether they like it or not, this is driving millions of people into hardship and it is not a problem that will go away without bold and concerted action,” Katie Schmuecker, the principal policy adviser at JRF, said. 

“It is time to build a system that is needs-tested – where the support people get is linked to the actual costs of essentials to meet basic needs rather than the baseless system people have to suffer now.”

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In a letter to all UK political party leaders, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), the Trussell Trust and other organisations including The Big Issue warn that urgent action is needed to help low-income people. 

Lord John Bird, the founder of Big Issue Group, said: “In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the fact that nine in 10 low-income households on universal credit are going without essentials is unacceptable.

“As a champion for social justice, the Big Issue Group, alongside other like-minded organisations, is calling on the government to address this urgent issue. No individual or family should be left to struggle during this crisis. We need to ensure that everyone has access to the basic necessities they need to get by, and we urge the government to take action now to support those who need it most.”

As increasing numbers of people go hungry, campaigners say a policy like this would be a lifeline for food banks which are already at breaking point. 

“We urgently need something like this to be implemented,” said Charlotte White, manager at Earlsfield Foodbank. “This would make a huge difference to food bank demand – so many of our guests need food aid because they have very little, or even zero, income and can’t afford the basics.  

“An initiative like this would mean that at the very least, the bare essentials would be covered. This government was quick to introduce a cap for benefits – what’s really needed is a benefits floor.”

Sabine Goodwin, coordinator at the Independent Food Aid Network, added: “Guaranteeing people can afford essential costs shouldn’t be in question. We need a social security system that’s fit for purpose and ensures people can live and thrive whether they can or can’t work.”

It would have a positive impact for people’s mental health too, helping to alleviate financial concerns. Brian Dow, the deputy chief executive at Rethink Mental Illness, said: “It’s impossible to improve your mental health when every day is shaped by the agonising worry and anxiety of how you will make ends meet. 

“Financial hardship makes people more likely to be trapped in a cycle of poor mental health and jeopardises their prospects of recovery from mental illness. We need to see the government take action to ensure social security represents the safety net it’s intended to be, by meeting the cost of the basic essentials we all need.”

Policies like this can work. The £20 uplift to universal credit helped lift an estimated 400,000 children out of poverty, but it was removed before the cost of living crisis and families were plunged into more desperate circumstances than before. 

“The most disturbing thing about millions of children falling through the huge holes in our social security net into poverty – which damages childhoods and destroys life chances – is not that the government continues to tolerate this, but that their policy choices have been a big reason why this is happening and why things are expected to get worse,” said Imran Hussain, the director of policy at Action for Children. 

“We must confront the myth that everyone in poverty can simply work their way out of it. An approach built on what works would ensure we have a social safety net that enables families to meet their essential costs, and that benefits can do their job of providing a basic minimum living standard.”

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Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. And we want to share your views with more people. Get in touch and tell us more.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future. 

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