What is destitution?

With the launch of our Destitution in the UK 2020 research, Emma Wincup explains what it means to be swept away by this rising tide.

Understanding what destitution in the UK means

It’s not right that anyone should have to face destitution. Destitution means going without the essentials we all need to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean. The UK should be a country where everyone has the chance of a healthy, decent, and secure life regardless of who they are and where they live. Yet our research shows that around 2.4 million people experienced destitution in the UK at some point during 2019, including over half a million children being pushed to the brink.

Who is destitute in the UK, and why?

  • Single working-age people were at highest risk of destitution, but in 2019 we found more families with children experienced destitution.
  • Three-quarters of those living in destitution were born in the UK.
  • Just over-half were disabled or had long-term health conditions.
  • Many of those experiencing destitution were insecurely housed, staying in emergency or temporary accommodation, living temporarily with family and friends, or at risk of eviction from rented accommodation.
  • Most relied on social security, although not all were eligible. Social security payments did not offer sufficient income to cover the cost of their essential needs, particularly if they were paying back debts or were being pushed to the brink by high housing costs.
  • For a minority, precarious work with uncertain incomes was a driver of destitution.
  • Destitution levels are highest in the North East, London, and the North West.

… as soon as my claim went through … I owed them £514 … Because for six weeks I had no income, so when I got the advance, that went on everything that I already owed … Then by the time I got to December – you’re just never catching up, because of the way it starts. Hence, the reason that we had to use a food bank to even survive.
Woman, aged 25-45

How has the pandemic affected people living in destitution?

For people living in destitution, their precarious existence offered little protection when the added pressure of COVID-19 threatened to push them deeper into destitution and exacerbated the difficulties they were already facing. Overcrowded housing, lack of access to key services, deteriorating mental health and struggles with remote schooling were just some of the experiences people shared.

A series of temporary lifelines helped people living in destitution to weather the coronavirus storm. Many people claiming Universal Credit had their incomes boosted at a time when they may be faced with rising costs. Many people benefited from some short-term respite when faced with eviction by private sector landlords. But we need more sustained efforts to turn back the rising tide of destitution, to keep people afloat who are already struggling, and prevent others from being pulled under.

The £20 has made a huge difference … It helps a lot … because with the addition of the £20 … everything in this house is electric, so the light goes fast … Yes, so at least we get some money to top up more on the electricity.
Woman, aged 25-45

How can we solve destitution?

In a society like ours it is intolerable that so many people have experienced destitution. The UK and devolved governments should:

  • Make the £20 weekly uplift in Universal Credit (UC) and Working Tax Credit (WTC) permanent and extend this lifeline to those claiming legacy benefits.
  • Work in partnership with people with lived experience of the social security system to ensure that debt deductions from benefits are not drivers of hardship and destitution. In particular, the minimum five-week wait for the first UC payment is a core driver of destitution, with many people forced to borrow UC advances to survive this period, leaving them facing unaffordable repayments.
  • Invest in local welfare assistance, ensuring that every English local authority has a scheme that provides direct support, including cash, to keep added pressure off households when a crisis threatens to push them into destitution.
  • Establish a targeted grant programme to support private and social renters who have fallen into arrears which they will otherwise struggle to pay back.
  • Use the upcoming employment bill to reduce insecurity for low-paid workers by extending employment rights and investing in strong and effective enforcement.

We need to act now to pull people back from the brink and stem the rising tide of destitution, designing just policies which provide security for every member of our society.

(This page was updated on 9 December 2020)