1.25 million people can’t afford to eat, keep clean and stay warm and dry

The first report to estimate the number of people who are destitute in the UK was released this week. Helen Barnard explains what it finds.

How many people in the UK cannot afford to eat regularly, keep clean and stay warm and dry? Perhaps surprisingly, there has not been an authoritative answer to that question until now. This week we have published the first comprehensive study into destitution in the UK, which shows that 1.25 million people, including over 300,000 children, were destitute over the course of 2015.   

The number of destitute people in the UK isn’t measured officially, despite growing concerns about rising use of food banks, homelessness and other indicators of severe poverty in recent years. In fact, when we started this research we found there wasn’t even a widely accepted definition of destitution which we could apply to everyone in the UK. The research team at Heriot-Watt University worked with experts to develop a robust definition, which was then tested with the general public.  Using this, we define destitution as being when someone lacks two or more basic essentials in one month, and so has experienced two or more of the following; slept rough, had one or no meals a day for two or more days, been unable to heat or to light their home for five or more days, gone without weather-appropriate clothes or gone without basic toiletries.

The study found that there is no one cause of destitution. Most people had been living in poverty for a considerable period of time before tipping into destitution. This long term poverty reduced their ability to meet day to day living costs or withstand financial shocks. They were then tipped into destitution through:

  • the extra costs of ill health and disability;
  • high costs of housing and other essential bills;
  • unemployment;
  • a financial shock like a benefit sanction or delay, as well as low levels of benefits for some groups;
  • debt repayments particularly from social fund loans and benefit overpayments owed to DWP, council tax arrears owed to local councils, rent arrears, and debts to utility companies.

Most destitute people were born in the UK (four out of five) and only a third had ‘complex needs’ (such as substance misuse, offending, serious mental ill-health, homelessness or begging). Young single men were at most risk of destitution, but there were also many destitute women and families.

The statistics in this report are very worrying, but the stories and words of those who were interviewed are just as striking. People who had experienced destitution said that they felt ‘demeaned', ‘degraded’ and ‘humiliated’ by having to get family, friends or charities to provide basics like food and toiletries. As is the case among many low income families, parents often went without so that they could provide more for their children. Many felt that destitution had a negative impact on their relationships with their children and with other family and friends, which led to social isolation. Mental and physical health were both affected by the long term experience of poverty, as well as the experience of destitution itself.

Ending destitution in the UK is not an easy or straightforward task; there is no single solution. We need a comprehensive plan bringing together local and national Governments, employers, businesses and communities to tackle the underlying drivers of poverty. This has to include reducing the cost of housing and bills, supporting ill and disabled people more effectively, helping more people into secure and decently paid jobs, taking a different approach to debt and giving much more consistent support to those affected by benefit delays and sanctions.  Local Welfare Funds in some areas are providing a life line; people in all parts of the country need this to help prevent poverty becoming destitution.  To underpin and monitor this action, the Office of National Statistics should introduce a measure to show how many people are destitute in the UK each year.

A version of this blog first appeared in The Times’ Red Box: Destitute: 1.25 million people can’t afford to eat, keep clean and stay warm and dry