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Destitution rising rapidly, Joseph Rowntree Foundation warns

18 December 2020

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HOUSEHOLDS in the UK which are experiencing destitution — families who cannot afford to meet their and their children’s basic needs — have risen by more than one third in recent years, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has found.

Its report, Destitution in the UK 2020, released on Wednesday of last week, the third in an ongoing series, suggests that, even before the pandemic, destitution was growing rapidly in scale and intensity.

Between 2017 and 2019, the number of households experiencing destitution increased by 35 per cent to one million — home to 2.4 million people, including 550,000 children. Most were in London, the north-east, and the north-west.

The majority of people living in destitution (81 per cent) did not have complex needs, such as having previously been homeless or having struggled with drug or alcohol addiction; complex-need rates were higher, however, among those who were destitute than within the population as a whole.

The research is based on case studies from 18 regions across the UK and a survey, conducted between October and November 2019, of 3914 people who had used 113 crisis services. It also includes interviews with 70 people who were known to be experiencing destitution.

The report highlights the importance of strong social security, affordable debt recovery and housing, secure work, and reliable community services, including projects to improve digital access among poorer communities.

The Foundation calls on the Government to retain the £20-a-week increase in benefits given during the pandemic (News, 2 October). The five-week wait for the first Universal Credit payment should also be addressed, it says. Any new benefits system should be informed by the people who have experienced the current benefits system first-hand.

It also recommends that the Government establish better employment rights for those in low-paid work, as part of the upcoming employment Bill; create a series of grants to help those who have fallen behind in their rent payments; and give every local authority in England the ability to provide financial assistance to households facing destitution as the result of a crisis, such as the pandemic.

Earlier this year, JRF warned that 14 million people in the UK were living in poverty, including two million pensioners, four million children, and eight million adults of working age (News, 14 February).

The research manager for JRF, Emma Wincup, said: “Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, destitution was rapidly growing in scale and intensity. Since 2017, many more households, including families with children, have been pushed to the brink. Their precarious existence offered little protection when the pressure of Covid-19 threatened to push them even deeper into destitution.

“The UK and devolved governments quickly provided a series of temporary lifelines to help people weather the coronavirus storm. But we need more sustained efforts to keep afloat people who are already struggling, and to turn back the rising tide of destitution.”

On Monday, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, also called on the Government to increase weekly benefits by £20 permanently, as well as increase child benefit and expand the provision of free school meals.

He was responding to a new report, Poverty in the Pandemic: An update on the impact of Covid-19 on low-income families and children, published by the Child Poverty Action Group on Monday. It is based on a survey of 393 families on low incomes whose children qualified for free school meals, 90 per cent of whom were worse off now than before the pandemic.

Three-quarters reported finding it “difficult” or “very difficult” to manage financially; nearly 60 per cent struggled to cover the cost of three or more basic essentials, including food, utilities, rent, travel, or child-related costs, while half of all families said that they had a new or worse debt problem. More than half also reported that they had a physical or mental health problem as a result of the pandemic

Bishop Butler, who was involved in the report, wrote in an article published on the Church of England website: “As temporary support schemes are withdrawn or phased out, and more people lose their jobs, a growing number of families are becoming reliant on the social security system. This is exposing problems with the current system. . . The pandemic has also highlighted systemic issues that both lead people into poverty, and for some permanently hold them there. So tackling these deep systemic entrenched issues needs to happen.

“This takes time. In the short term, though, we must take urgent action simply to keep poverty and destitution from the door. . . We must remember the poor — not only by cooking meals for local families or donating to the nearest food bank, but also by advocating for a more generous social security system and for the deep radical changes needed to tackle the underlying drivers of poverty in the longer-term.”

UNICEF: support for children ‘totally inadequate’. Just two per cent of the $14.9 trillion spent on domestic financial recovery packages by wealthier countries between February and August was given to support children and families, the United Nations Children’s charity, UNICEF, has found.

In a report published on Thursday of last week, Supporting Families and Children Beyond Covid-19: Social protection in high income countries, said that businesses had been the biggest benefactors of recovery packages, absorbing about 80 per cent of the available funds during this period. The most marginalised children would suffer most as a result, it suggests, with the consequences reaching into adulthood.

The director of the UNICEF Office of Research — Innocenti, Gunilla Olsson, said: “The amount of financial relief allocated directly to children and families does not match the severe fallout of the pandemic, nor how long this crisis is expected to impact these countries.”

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