Take action now to narrow the gap between incomes and the cost of living

Throughout 2021 our Grassroots Poverty Action Group (GPAG) met with JRF analysts to discuss the most pertinent issues affecting people living in poverty. Here they share their experiences of struggling to get by at a time when living costs are rapidly rising, and outline what needs to change.

We were already feeling considerable strain, already living in a world where we face multiple stresses every day in keeping our heads above water. Rises in the cost of living aren’t new, nothing ever gets cheaper. However, the scale of the current increases is really adding pressure to our budgets. When money is tight you notice every time something gets more expensive, particularly when it’s an essential item that you really can’t do without. Those of us on the lowest incomes have no wriggle room when costs increase. The huge rise in prices can’t be absorbed in our budgets. It means cutting the amount of time we can heat our homes or the food we buy, and in some cases leaves us relying on help from others to purchase basic everyday items.

It’s not just that prices are increasing either. We and other members of our group have put ourselves at risk working in essential roles throughout the pandemic and feel we haven’t seen the benefits of this. The risk is not only to our health, but also to our incomes. Statutory sick pay is less than £100 a week, nowhere near enough to make up for the lost income we incur if we are to fall ill. The Government will also shortly raise National Insurance contributions, which will reduce our pay each month. All this leaves us feeling badly treated and undervalued. It feels unjust.

Jobs that don’t pay

Some of us have experienced worsening working conditions over recent years, with fire-and-rehire schemes making it near impossible for us to do anything other than accept these changes despite their adverse impact on our wellbeing. The possibility of being without work when you don’t have savings to fall back on seems a much scarier prospect than losing a couple of days of annual leave or the removal of an organisation’s sick pay offering. However, these changes have pushed some of us who were previously teetering on the edge of coping into deeper poverty. The removal of sick pay beyond the statutory amount means we are forced to take annual leave when we are sick, to make sure we are still able to pay the bills. This means we are unable to use our annual leave to take regular breaks from work or enjoy the time with our families and friends, all essential for good physical and mental health. If we cannot take annual leave we have two choices: rely on statutory sick pay when we fall ill, which is often insufficient, or continue to work despite being sick (and even that's not an option if we have Covid-19 because we need to self-isolate).This issue feels particularly pertinent as the Covid-19 pandemic rolls on into another year, and the risk of unacceptable hardship looms large.

Where our contracted hours do not provide an income that we are able to live on, we take on any extra hours that are offered. Sometimes this is to cover the cost of additional items, such as a Christmas or birthday present for a child, or sometimes these additional hours help cover the basics. It can be impossible to predict how many hours will be available for staff in insecure sectors such as hospitality or care. It’s difficult to manage when your income is constantly fluctuating. We aren’t the only ones in this situation: the lowest paid self-employed people face similar struggles. For those of us on very low wages, it’s a constant battle to keep our heads above water, where 60-hour weeks are the only life jacket available.

Rising fuel prices

The rising costs of petrol and diesel are already being felt by those of us living in poverty. We see people in our communities leaving relatively well-paid jobs that they enjoy, to take up jobs nearer to home as the cost of fuelling and running the car is unaffordable. For people who live in rural or semi-rural locations, public transport can be expensive, infrequent, unreliable or non-existent. The soaring cost of gas and electricity means that some of us are putting the heating on for an hour a day, in two 30-minute intervals, and wearing two jumpers and a dressing gown in between these times. For others, it means having to face the question of whether to buy winter shoes for a parent or a child, as the fuel bill is eating into the remaining household budget. This not only impacts on our quality of life but our physical, mental, and emotional health too. The scale of the recent increases makes a huge difference when you are living on a low-income, and we worry about what lies ahead in the next few months.

Providing security and stability for us all

We need urgent action to help people like us who were already feeling significant strain before the pandemic. We have been hit hardest over the last two years whilst we have worked tirelessly to support people who needed us. Work should be a key route out of poverty, but even with additional financial support from the social security system it doesn’t always provide enough income to meet the myriad rising costs we are all facing. We, like many other people, experience stress and anxiety as we worry about how to make ends meet when faced with unpredictable and unmanageable circumstances. We know from personal experience what needs to change if we are to end the injustice of poverty. Together, we’ve identified the following changes:

  • an income that allows us to enjoy a decent standard of living rather than struggling to just afford the essentials;
  • pay and conditions that enable us to balance work and family life rather than work all the hours we can to try to get by;
  • adequate financial support when we are unable to work due to illness so we can take the time we need to recover rather than struggle on, putting ourselves and others at risk.

These changes would help people like us to escape poverty, but also prevent more people being swept into it.

We can and must redesign the systems that are holding us back so they provide the security and stability we all need to enjoy a better quality of life.


This blog was written by:

GPAG - Carol Thompson, Tayyaba Siddiqui and Kristian Losztyn

JRF - David Leese, Emma Wincup and Bronny Embleton

Read JRF's new report, UK Poverty 2022, which was produced in collaboration with the Grassroots Poverty Action Group.

You can read more about JRF's participatory co-design project and its recommendations to pave the way for good jobs.