Opinion

Millions on universal credit left cold, without food and in debt – because the system is failing us

The Trussell Trust is calling for universal credit to be increased to ensure that people don't go hungry and cold because they cannot afford the essentials

food bank

Stacking shelves at a Trussell Trust food bank. Image: Robin Prime/ Trussell Trust

Universal credit should protect people from tough times and provide a strong foundation for people to recover from setbacks and grasp new opportunities, but it’s clearly failing to do either.

Our new research has this week revealed the devastating consequences of the inadequacy of universal credit across the UK. More than half of those claiming universal credit aren’t even able to afford enough food, with 780,000 forced to access a food bank in the last month. Many people are unable to afford to use their oven or keep their house warm and 2.4 million have fallen into debt because they couldn’t keep up with essential bills.

When record numbers of people are being left with no option but to use a food bank, it’s clear that the systems that are supposed to be there to support us are not fit for purpose. Food banks do all they can to support people, but charities can’t pick up the slack of a broken security system.

In the words of two people who have needed the help of our food banks: “I’ve literally gone without food for days at a time, and can’t put gas and electricity on for a week or so at a time” and “by week three, things are tight, by week four, there is nothing left.” Universal credit simply doesn’t provide enough to cover the basic essentials we all need to survive and it’s not right that people are stuck in this cycle.

In the last couple of years, the government has used one-off cost of living payments to supplement inadequate benefits. This month, eight million people across the UK are set to receive the final instalment of these. Each time a cost of living payment is made, the food banks in the Trussell Trust network have seen a drop in the numbers of people seeking their help.

But this respite is always short lived, with need quickly shooting up again. These payments have provided urgent relief to millions, but they are just temporary solutions – sticking plasters rather than a treatment for the root cause of poverty. What we need is urgent action to increase long-term support for people struggling to get by.

The household support fund, which was introduced in September 2021, has allowed local councils to fund essential support programmes to help residents on the lowest incomes, but it is currently set to come to an end in April. Ahead of the Spring Budget, we are urging the chancellor to commit to extending the Household Support Fund as soon as possible to ensure vital local support does not disappear, leaving people to face even more catastrophic hardship. However, this alone will not make up for the inadequacies of our social security system.

For too long, people have been going without the essentials we all need because social security payments are not based on a real reflection of life’s costs and are pushing people deeper into poverty as a result. 

More people than ever before are having to turn to a charity for support, between April to September food banks in the Trussell Trust network provided 1.5 million food parcels – the most ever for this period. Food banks and other charities are doing all they can to support people, but we simply cannot make up for a social security system that is utterly failing in its most fundamental duty.



That’s why the Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation are calling on the government to introduce an ‘essentials guarantee’ in universal credit, to help tackle hardship and ensure everyone has a protected minimum amount of support to afford the essentials, such as food and household bills.

The proposal is backed by more than 100 organisations across the charity and business sectors, including The Big Issue, as well as dozens of celebrities and faith leaders who last month signed an open letter demanding politicians address the growing levels of poverty in the UK.

We also know that the public is deeply concerned about poverty and hunger, with 72% supporting our call for an essentials guarantee and tens of thousands of people having signed a petition calling for the policy to be implemented.

We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and yet people who need the most support are being left to struggle – this cannot be allowed to continue. Every member of the UK parliament has to take responsibility for making the changes needed to tackle poverty and to bring about the changes required to move towards ending the need for food banks, for good.

To join The Trussell Trust in calling for a stronger social security system that helps end the need for food banks, support the essentials guarantee campaign and sign the petition.

Helen Barnard is the director of policy, research and impact at The Trussell Trust.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Christopher Eccleston on his love affair with running: 'I always feel better after a run'
Christopher Eccleston

Christopher Eccleston on his love affair with running: 'I always feel better after a run'

Healthcare for trans youth is a human right – it should matter to us all
trans rights human rights
Chiara Capraro

Healthcare for trans youth is a human right – it should matter to us all

Sudan's year of war: How British government has failed UK residents with family in Sudan
Sudan conflict protest
Nick Beales

Sudan's year of war: How British government has failed UK residents with family in Sudan

A lifetime of playing the imitation game has reaped rewards
John Bird

A lifetime of playing the imitation game has reaped rewards

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know