More than 1.5 million people in the UK, including more than 350,000 children, experienced destitution last year, a study has found, meaning they regularly went without food, toiletries, adequate clothing or shelter.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says a “tangled combination” of benefit cuts, delays and sanctions, together with harsh debt-recovery practices and high housing rental costs pushed people already in poverty over the edge into extreme deprivation.
Nearly two-thirds reported that they ate fewer than two meals a day for two or more days over the previous month, nearly half lacked clothing appropriate for the weather, more than 40% went without heating, and 15% slept rough.
Although the foundation’s study says there was no single cause of destitution, it calls for an overhaul of universal credit to eradicate well-publicised design flaws that helped tip vulnerable benefit claimants into severe hardship.
The research defines destitution as reliance on an income so low as to make living basics unaffordable (£70 per week for a single adults, £140 for a couple with children, after housing costs) or because they cannot afford two or more of six essentials over a month, including shelter, food, clothing, lighting and heating.
From lengthy payment delays to an aggressive approach to deductions of benefit advances, the study says it is “clear that … aspects of both the structure and administration of universal credit risk seriously exacerbating destitution.”
Campbell Robb, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “To be destitute doesn’t just mean getting by on very little, it’s losing the ability to keep a roof over your head, eat often enough, or afford warm clothes when it’s cold. You can’t keep yourself clean or put the lights on. This shouldn’t happen to anybody, let alone over one and a half million people in the UK.”
The re-emergence of destitution-levels of poverty among low-income families over the past two to three years has been noted by poverty campaigners, including the Labour MP Frank Field, who recently argued that for “the first time in postwar history, the state has become a generator of destitution”.
The study says that even aside from the design problems in universal credit, basic benefit levels are inadequate for many claimants. It notes that single benefit recipients living alone under 25 are by definition destitute because basic job seeker’s allowance rates are so low, and have been frozen for more than two years.
The study, by researchers at Heriot-Watt University, noted a sharp fall in the number of destitute people reporting that they received help from local authority hardship schemes, which have been dramatically cut in recent years.
At the same time, there was evidence of a large increase in the use by destitute people of handouts from churches and charities, including food banks, a trend the study noted was “an ever more humiliating experience”.
Destitution had a deep impact on mental health, with depression, stress and anxiety commonly reported.
Although the study estimates overall levels of destitution are proportionately lower than when the last study was conducted in 2016 – mainly because of of higher employment levels and an easing off in numbers of benefit sanctions – it warns that this trend could reverse because of rising levels of sanctions under universal credit.
Single younger men were most likely to become destitute, the study found. Although migrants and refugees – who have limited or no access to benefits or paid work – were vulnerable to severe poverty, three-quarters of those who were destitute were born in the UK.
A DWP spokesman said: “Work is the best route out of poverty and our welfare reforms incentivise employment while having the right support in place for those that need it. Universal credit lies at the heart of our commitment to improve lives, and it is seeing people move into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system.
“This report fails to take this into account, nor the recent improvements we have made to universal credit, including continuing to pay two weeks’ housing costs for claimants moving onto UC, removing the seven waiting days, increasing advance payments to 100% and extending repayment times to 12 months.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010