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‘Over-reliance’ on voluntary work to help destitute

06 May 2016


Help on the street: a sign for a Trussell Trust foodbank, on a residential street in Edinburgh

Help on the street: a sign for a Trussell Trust foodbank, on a residential street in Edinburgh

MORE than one million people were destitute and in touch with voluntary-sector crisis services last year, a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests.

The researchers say that that their findings raise “troubling questions” about the increased reliance on charities and faith groups to meet basic needs.

The report, Destitution in the UK, estimates that more than 1.2 million people, in households including 312,000 children, were destitute and in touch with voluntary-sector crisis services, in 2015. This is a conservative estimate, it says, given that many more are likely not to come to the attention of such services.

The definition, developed by specialists and endorsed in a public survey of 2000 people, is that people are destitute if they “cannot afford to buy the absolute essentials that we all need to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean”. People met the definition if (a) they had lacked at least two of six essential items over the past month because they could not afford them; or (b) their income was so low that they were unable to buythese essentials. This equated to £70 for a single adult living alone. The authors note that the basic Jobseeker’s Allowance of £73.10 a week was close to this threshold.

To explore the routes to destitution, the researchers studied questionnaires returned by 2009 users of voluntary-sector crisis services, and conducted 80 in-depth interviews. Of those that met the definition of “destitution”, 76 per cent had gone without food in the past month, and 56 per cent had been unable to heat their home adequately. They were found to be taking “radical” measures to cope: mothers described skipping meals in order to feed their children; a father described being unable to buy calamine lotion for his young daughter.

Seventy-nine per cent of those destitute in 2015 were born in the UK. Destitution is concentrated in former industrial areas, largely in the north; some London boroughs; and seaside towns. The group that appears to be most at risk is younger single men. Less than one in 20 of the destitute-services users was in work.

For those born in the UK without complex needs (long-term homelessness, substance misuse, or mental-health problems), the fall into destitution tended to be related to welfare payments, but inability to pay debts and high living costs were also observed. For those with complex needs, the causes were traced by the researchers to long-term health problems, a “trauma-affected background”, and the “erosion of social-support networks”. Although some had problems of addiction, the researchers emphasise that “the majority had an income so low that they would have been destitute regardless of their expenditure choices.”

Three-quarters of destitute-services users were still destitute three to four months later. For those who had moved out of this category, the resolution of a benefit issue was the most common cause. Those without complex needs generally viewed paid work as the “ideal” pathway out. It was even more strongly cited by migrants. A lack of jobs in the local area was the most frequently cited barrier to work. One man described applying for 30 to 40 jobs a week (“you’re actually very lucky if you even get an answer back from one of them”).

The authors note that faith-based organisations play a significant part in providing services to those who are destitute. This raises “troubling questions about the shift towards more localised and variable forms of state-funded welfare, and increased reliance on charities and faith groups to meet the basic needs of those facing more extreme forms of poverty”. Almost all of those who took part in interviews talked about how “demeaning” they found it to have to seek help with basic material needs.



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