No heat. No food. No end in sight. The families facing deepening, desperate poverty

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Deepening levels of poverty have forced many of the poorest families to cut down on or skip meals. Other families are turning off the heating. Some families have no choice but to do both...

The annual UK poverty report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF, 2023) also warns that many of the poorest families are living on a knife-edge, unable to afford any unexpected expense, living in arrears, and using credit to pay essential bills.

And with inflation continuing to hit record levels – there is no end in sight for these families.

Official government figures show that in the year to March 2021, 3.9 million children and young people (27%) were living in poverty (in families with 60% of the median UK income after housing costs). This figure includes one million children aged just four and under.

However, the report says that as many as 2.7 million children and young people (19%) are now living in “deep poverty” (in families with 50% of median income).

It also warns that one in six children are living in persistent poverty – meaning they have been in poverty for three of the last four years.

And the picture today, as you read this article, will be much worse. This is because the removal in October 2021 of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, introduced at the height of the pandemic, and soaring inflation mean the situation will have deteriorated for many families since the official data was last collected. The official figures are due to be updated in March.

When this happens, it has already been estimated that the number of children living in poverty will return at least to levels seen before the Universal Credit uplift – about 4.3 million.

The JRF report has sparked renewed calls in education circles for the government to expand free school meals to all children on Universal Credit It is estimated that 800,000 children living in poverty are still not eligible for FSMs and teachers have been reporting increasing numbers of children turning up at school hungry.

The report cites data from the JRF cost of living tracker (Earwaker, 2022) which looks at the impact of poverty on the poorest families in the country.

For October and November 2022, the report states: “Looking across the poorest fifth of families, the results present a truly shocking picture: more than 7 in 10 families are going without essentials, around 6 in 10 cannot afford an unexpected expense, more than half are in arrears, and around a quarter use credit to pay essential bills. The situation has worsened greatly since … October 2021.”

The tracker finds that 6 in 10 of the poorest families either cut down on or skipped meals for adults in the home because there was not enough money for food; 6 in 10 of the poorest families are also heating their homes less.

And there is a frightening overlap between households not able to heat their homes and those not able to eat properly. The report is stark: “What is deeply worrying … is the degree of overlap between going without enough food and warmth.

“Among those unable to heat their home adequately between June and November 2022, 79% also reported either going hungry or cutting down on meals because there wasn’t enough money for food in the previous 30 days.

“Overall, that means one in four (27%) low-income households were going without enough food and were unable to keep their homes warm.”

The report adds: “In autumn 2022, JRF’s cost of living tracker found that 1.4 million households in the bottom income quintile had both not heated their home and had cut down on food, skipped meals or gone hungry since the beginning of 2022.”

The tracker also shows that 3.1 million households were in arrears in October 2022 – a figure which has been getting progressively worse in recent years.

But the JRF report is clear that government action can make a difference. It points to the Universal Credit £20 uplift as evidence that direct government action can have an immediate impact for families.

However, the report also points to a benefits system that works to increase poverty, including via the benefit cap and the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment. The report adds: “What is evident beyond this though is that the basic rates of benefits are inadequate and do not allow recipients to meet their essential needs. Resetting basic benefit rates and ensuring that they cannot be brought below these rates through the repayment of advances or other deductions is a critical step to protecting people.”

The JRF says that around 400,000 additional children were able to live in a family that is not in poverty thanks to the Universal Credit uplift. It adds: “The government showed it could make a meaningful difference to the numbers experiencing poverty during the pandemic when it introduced the temporary £20 a week increase to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit.

“However the period of respite was brief, with the government taking away this help just as the cost of living crisis began, with benefits instead rising by only 3.1% – a fraction of the inflation many families are experiencing.”

Peter Matejic, chief analyst at the JRF and one of the report’s co-authors, said: “Leaving people to go hungry, skip showers or live in cold homes risks further profound and long-term consequences. But governments are far from helpless and none of this is inevitable. The £20 uplift was the right political choice which clearly made a huge difference during the pandemic. The relief provided by this measure, taken away just as the cost of living crisis hit, also demonstrated that the standard rates of social security are fundamentally not fit-for-purpose, with millions now going without essentials such as food, heating and cleanliness.

“These problems can be solved, but it takes the political will and imagination to tackle multiple injustices at once – and all of us need a government and an economy that works for us when times are hard.”

Commenting on the report, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, called the findings “bleak” and said we were a long way from achieving a “fairer society”.

He continued: “The pandemic and cost-of-living crisis have widened the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers, but the inequalities that underpin our society have been around far longer and run much deeper. If children lack basic amenities, if they are cold and hungry, then they are not in a fit state to learn.

“Significant and sustained government investment is required to tackle child poverty. Immediate and urgent action is also necessary over the growing number of pupils attending school hungry. The government must extend FSMs to all children whose families are in receipt of Universal Credit to ensure that young people are guaranteed a decent meal. This is so obvious that it should not need saying, and yet the calls for this simple step, made by many organisations and individuals, have so far been ignored.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, echoed the call: “Our members seefirst-hand the impact that poverty has on children’s education, affecting their ability to concentrate in school and fulfil their potential.Every child living in poverty is a victim of political inaction. The government urgently needs to offer FSMs to all children in primary schools to ensure that no child is left behind and put money back infamilies pockets."

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