Universal credit traps the already poor into hardship, say charity, Joseph Rowntree Foundation. More than 1.5 million people in the UK, including more than 350,000 children, experienced destitution last year, their study found, this means 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. In my own experience I went without food for two weeks, I didn’t know about foodbanks at the time and wouldn’t have been able to make the journey of 15 miles to it anyway.
Universal credit needs an overhaul
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 un-affordable (£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.”
With lengthy delays in payments to claimants and an “aggressive” strategy to recover old debts and or advances, it is, “clear that … aspects of both the structure and administration of universal credit risk seriously exacerbating destitution.”
So although they cannot prove beyond doubt Universal Credit is to blame, they are laying a high proportion of the blame directly at its door.
As always, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) fail to accept this, or any criticism of it’s “flagship policy”, as can be seen in a statement released by a DWP spokesmen yesterday in response to the studies findings.
“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.”
The DWP and government are either ignorant to the issues people are facing, or are wilfully neglecting the most vulnerable in society. I will leave that for you ponder yourselves.
Re-emergence of 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”, with him raising the fact that the 5 week waiting period is pushing people into debt.
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. I have learned this for myself, with the Scottish Welfare Fund managed by my local authority refusing to help me when I ran out of food and electricity, as I’d had the maximum help for the year and also their budget for the year had actually ran out.
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”.
The shame I felt of having to go to a foodbank for the first time was immense, the staff were amazing, you can tell they’re used to people being nervous and withdrawn.
Now I don’t find it hard going in, it’s asking an agency for a referral that’s the hardest. If you ask the Jobcentre you get a whole host of probing questions as to why you cannot afford to feed yourself. I have on more than one occasion just gone without because I couldn’t face the prospect of that.
Destitution had a deep impact on mental health, with depression, stress and anxiety commonly reported. As I reported last week, a Trussell Trust deep dive study found an average 46% increase in mental health conditions in Universal Credit claimants, something those of you who’ve read my other work will know, I have had problems with myself. Although, in my case I already had the condition, when I changed from Employment and Support Allowance to Universal Credit I saw a dramatic downturn in my general mental health.
Although the study estimates overall levels of destitution are proportionately lower than when the last study was conducted in 2016 – mainly because 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.
Under 25s are destitute by default
Single young men were found to be the most likely to become destitute the study found. It noted 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. So from the get go, under 25s already have an uphill struggle to survive.
Why they get less has always confused me, as many people leave home before they are 25, have kids, are married and contribute to society just as much as someone over 25. They pay the same rent, but the same food and don’t get any special discounts on utilities either. So why the difference? We should be helping our youngest generation of working age adults so as they can lead more productive lives. While it may cost more in the short term, the long term benefits far outweigh this in my opinion.
Also, although migrants and refugees ,(who have limited or no access to benefits or paid work), were seen as vulnerable to severe poverty, three-quarters of those who were classed as destitute, were born in the UK.
My thoughts on this and other recent studies.
While I’m not surprised by the studies findings, it does drive it home that the government are just not willing to take responsibility for their mistakes. While I could accept this if these were isolated incidents in the early stages, it has been five years now and nothing has changed.
We are only half way through the Universal Credit roll-out and already services are under pressure. With increasing mental health issues in claimants, and people lacking adequate food intake, the pressure on the NHS is only going to increase as more areas go live.
Trussell Trust studies mirror what has been released by the JRF, their end of year reports saw an average 13% increase in foodbank use however, in areas were Universal Credit had been operating for 12 months or more there was a 52% increase in referrals.
In an article on my blog yesterday, I wrote how Great Yarmouth, which along with the Highlands was a pilot area for Universal Credit, has seen a 90% increase in foodbank use since the roll out. Despite this the Tory MP Brandon Lewis defended the benefit against a backdrop of calls by local services to scrap it.
With the stability of the government already in question because of other matters such as Brexit and Windrush, the growing scandal that is Universal Credit will not help them. Their failure to act after five years of Universal Credit failures will probably be eclipsed by their stance on Brexit negotiations and its outcome, but it won’t be far behind.
You can find me on Facebook by searching “Universal Credit Sufferer“. I try to post engaging content across all platforms however I am limited by the use of only a mobile phone, so please bear with me on some days.