What is destitution?

Destitution means going without the bare essentials we all need. That’s a home, food, heating, lighting, clothing, shoes and basic toiletries. We define destitution as when people have lacked two or more of these essentials over the past month because they couldn’t afford them; or if their income is extremely low – less than £70 a week for a single adult. This definition is also based on what the general public agree destitution to be.

With the launch of significant new research into the problem of destitution in the UK, Chris Goulden takes us through what this issue means.

Understanding what destitution in the UK means

It’s not right that anyone should have to face destitution. In our society, no-one should be left to go hungry, be unable to heat or light their home or live on the streets. Yet our research shows that around one and a half million people were destitute in the UK at some point during 2017, including over a third of a million children. This means they could not afford to have what we all need to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean. One and a half million people locked out of the chance of building a decent and secure life.

…because I had some arrears, which I knew nothing about until they told me. So, I've got to pay all that back, so I'm living on about maybe £200 for a month and by the time I pay out my electric, or what debts I've got, it leaves me with nothing, so I've got to rely on the food bank or neighbours for food.
Female aged 25 - 45

Who is destitute in the UK, and why?

Destitution typically happens when people have been trapped in long-term poverty and deep hardship. Single, younger men are at highest risk. Three-quarters of those in destitution were born in the UK. Almost all people experiencing destitution, if not homeless, live in rented, temporary or shared accommodation. Destitution is clustered around the major northern cities and in some London Boroughs.

People are pulled into destitution by a combination of factors:

  • Low benefit levels, benefit sanctions, and delays in receiving benefits - sometimes a lack of eligibility for benefits at all.
  • Harsh debt recovery practices.
  • Financial pressures due to poor health and disability.
  • High costs for housing and fuel.

How can we solve destitution?

It’s shameful that, at some point during 2017, one and a half million people went without the bare essentials. To help solve destitution, the UK Government needs to:

  • End the freeze on working-age benefits so they at least keep up with the cost of essentials.
  • Change how sanctions are used within Universal Credit so that people are not left destitute by design.
  • Change how debt is clawed back from people receiving benefits, so they can keep their heads above water.

We need to act now to prevent people being trapped in destitution by a system that isn’t working.