Destitution is rising fast due to Covid and flaws in the benefit system | Poverty

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For many years the word “destitution” felt like a throwback to some dimly lit Victorian past. No one was destitute in modern Britain, at least those who were eligible for social security. You might be poor, but it was rare to be regularly hungry, cold, ill clothed, and entirely dependent on the kindness of charity.

All that started to change less than a decade ago. While headline relative poverty rates seemed to change very little, researchers noticed that the proportion of those below the breadline experiencing extreme poverty was growing. Food bank volunteers saw people going for days without eating. Debt charities helped people mired in mountains of debt over unpaid rent and utility bills.

Three years ago the veteran anti-poverty campaigner and former MP Frank Field suggested what was being witnessed day in day out in the food banks and church halls of the UK’s poorest neighbourhoods went far beyond the quotidian shock of poverty numbers. Destitution was real and growing alarmingly, he said. “Clearly something unique and horrendous is happening to the bottom end of our society.”

By then Prof Suzanne Fitzpatrick was already analysing the phenomenon. Alongside the “old destitute” – asylum seekers and migrants without eligibility for benefits – she identified the new destitute: “People who once might have expected the welfare safety net to help them avoid extreme deprivation but who now have no such guarantee.”

Fitzpatrick and colleagues at the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Equalities Research at Heriot-Watt University developed a definition of destitution based on publicly agreed minimum levels of income needed for “basic physiological functioning”. For a single person living alone that is £70 a week after rent for food, heat, light, clothing and footwear, and toiletries like soap and toothpaste.

As a decade of austerity cuts shrank the benefits bill by £37bn, leaving it at bare subsistence levels – so grew the vulnerability of low-income families to unexpected “income shocks” – job loss, a broken fridge, a higher-than-expected gas bill. Worse, the social security system itself – in the form of the five-week wait for a universal credit payment – seemed in itself to create indebtedness, hunger and destitution.

Fitzpatrick’s latest study of destitution, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), concludes that not only has the scale of destitution grown and intensified – especially in some of the poorest areas of northern England, Scotland and Wales, but that it is likely to double to 2 million households – including 1 million children – as the Covid economic crisis deepens.

“Our findings clearly show that levels of destitution in the UK were already rising sharply prior to the pandemic and the impact of Covid-19 has intensified the difficulties many people face accessing the help they need to meet their most fundamental needs,” said Fitzpatrick.

She added: “The sheer scale of the issue is unacceptable in one of the world’s richest countries and starkly reveals the devastating impact of the gaps, flaws and deductions in universal credit and other aspects of the social security system that lead to destitution by design.”

What shocked researchers was not just the meagreness of the social security system and its growing reliance on food banks, but the intrinsic unreliability of the charity response, for all its valiant efforts. Many destitute people they interviewed couldn’t get referrals to food banks. The centrality of housing affordability to destitution is underlined, as well as the impact of extreme poverty on physical and mental health,

The report’s key messages are essentially about the effectiveness of the UK’s social security system since the pandemic began. Not just the retention of the £20-a-week top-up for universal credit – 700,000 people face poverty overnight if it goes – but deeper issues concerning its generosity, reliability and effectiveness. As Helen Barnard, director of JRF, concludes, it’s time to redesign a system “to keep people afloat, rather than drag people down”.

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Destitution is rising fast due to Covid and flaws in the benefit system | Poverty

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