Families reliant on Universal Credit to pay bills and put food on the table are facing “a cold, hard winter”, with over one in four (26%) already cutting back on electricity and heating and many more forced to borrow money to make ends-meet.
This is the startling warning from Save The Children, who have conducted an online survey of 3,100 parents of children under 18 across the UK, claiming either Universal Credit or Child Tax Credit.
The survey also reveals that 38% have been forced to rely on help from charities for food and clothes in the past two months, while a shocking 60% have been driven into debt because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
38% of low-income families have been left even worse off by the pandemic, with 27% reporting that they’re finding it even harder to afford food now than in April.
According to Save The Children, families have borrowed over £1,700 on average in the last two months alone.
Previous research by Save the Children and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in June found that 70% of families had to cut back on food and other essentials when the pandemic hit.
The charity says the new figures suggest things have not improved for many families, despite recent benefit changes and government schemes to support workers. Indeed, less than half of those surveyed by the charity thought the government was doing enough to help low income families.
Denise, a single mum to two children, lost her job in retail and is now reliant on Universal Credit while she looks for a new job.
“About two and half weeks after I’ve been paid my bank account is usually looking pretty empty. I’m pretty good at budgeting, but it still just isn’t enough. And then you end up getting into debt,” she said.
“I can just about cover the basics, but having kids doesn’t work that way — there’s always something else you need. You’re forever having to buy kids new stuff – they’re always growing out of things.
“My daughter needs a new winter coat, and they always need new shoes, and then you have the school uniforms on top of that. And they either have to go without, or you have to borrow money. I feel like I’m forever borrowing money.”
Sabina, from Central London, has an 11-year-old son and has been receiving Universal Credit since she lost her job as a Teaching Assistant in December.
“I always know there will be a week or two where I won’t have much money at all. My rent and council tax comes to just under £1000 a month — that’s more than half of the money I get in Universal Credit. So you’re basically just about getting by. It’s a struggle,” she said.
“When the money runs out, I have to use up every last source of food in my house to feed my son, and I will just go without or eat something small.
“The other day I didn’t have any money for the electric so we went for a whole evening without electricity until I could borrow money from a neighbour to top it up.
“We’ve always kind of struggled, even when I was in employment. Without the help, I don’t know what I would have done when I lost my job. But it isn’t enough. People shouldn’t have to live like this.”
Save The Children is calling for £10-a-week increase to either child benefit or the child element of Universal Credit and Child Tax Credit to help families through the winter.
The call comes after Boris Johnson refused to rule out a £20 a week cut to Universal Credit from April next year, which would see many families lose over £1,000 a year.
Save The Children has joined other charities and organisations in calling on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to keep this increase, which was announced as a temporary measure when the pandemic hit. 40% of families surveyed by Save the Children said that they would have to cut back on food or other essentials if these cuts go ahead in April.
Becca Lyon, Head of Child Poverty at Save the Children, said:“With winter on its way and more job losses expected, things are about to get even more difficult for families still reeling from the cost of lockdown.
“Parents tell us they’re already having to go without meals or electricity when their money runs out, and many are worried that the cost of heating their homes through the winter will push them into even more debt.
“It’s just not right that parents are having to borrow money, sell their possessions or rely on charity to buy winter coats for their children.
“Our country’s safety net is supposed to help those who need it through difficult times. But families with children, many of whom were struggling even before the crisis, are being left – quite literally – in the cold.
“The Chancellor set out his plan for jobs, which is crucial given the unemployment rise facing us. But he must also recognise the added pressure families are under right now, and make policy decisions that reflect that reality, and have our children’s best interests at heart.
“At the very least, we’re urging the chancellor not to go ahead with plans to take away £1000 in benefits from low income households next April, which would leave families with children in a desperate situation.
“And an additional £10 per week now would mean parents don’t have to choose between buying warm winter clothes for their children or keeping the heating on that bit longer.”
Government figures show that the Department for Work and Pensions has received more than 400,000 new applications from families with children for Universal Credit since March. This brings the total number of families with children on Universal Credit to around 3 million, with many more yet to moved from legacy benefits.