When I asked Gemma, a single mother in Hackney if she struggled to afford food, she said she had barely eaten all week and that she just drank a lot of water to trick her stomach into feeling full. She said she regularly skipped meals so her son could eat. It had been his birthday the week before and she had no money left.
Now, on October 6, the government plans to cut the universal credit support she receives from the state, in what UK poverty organisations regard as the single biggest cut to the rate of social security in the UK’s postwar welfare state. This will undoubtedly have a major impact on the lives of millions of low-income families who rely on this already often inadequate social security support to put food on the table, and pay for basics like rent and heating bills.
I have spent recent months researching the crisis in temporary accommodation and homelessness in London, and the women with young children I have spoken to explained the tough reality of life on universal credit.
On September 16, a non-binding vote in parliament called on the government to cancel the proposed cut. On September 17, the United Nations expert on poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter, said he considers the cut “unconscionable” and made public a letter in which he told the UK government that the cut is “likely to leave millions of universal credit recipients struggling to meet their daily expenses.”
The number of people claiming universal credit has doubled since the start of the pandemic to nearly six million. Just under half of the households include children, and half of those are with children under the age of five.
Government cuts to support affect low-income families’ economic and social rights – like their rights to food, housing, or social security. When I have asked low-income families living in precarious housing across the capital if their benefits payments were adequate, most were grateful for what they were given, but highlighted that they often still needed to visit their local food bank just to make ends meet.