Our social security system must support households with a disabled person to afford the essentials
Long-standing inequalities mean that households with a disabled person are falling behind faster in the cost of living crisis. Our latest analysis shows a disturbing picture - but it doesn’t have to be like this.
Data consistently shows that households with a disabled person are more likely to face hardship than others: they are more likely to be in poverty, and in very deep poverty, have lower rates of employment than households without a disabled person, and often face additional costs due to having a disability (see our latest UK Poverty report).
This blog explores how these long-standing inequalities have played out during the current cost of living crisis using data from JRF’s cost of living tracker from May 2023, which surveyed 4,000 low-income households[i] (those in the bottom 40% of incomes) across the UK. Of the low-income households we surveyed, 23% reported one disability among their households, while 12% reported two or more. [ii] [iii]
We find that low-income households with a disabled person are being hit hard by the cost of living crisis, with almost 6 in 10 experiencing food insecurity in April/May 2023 (57%), 7 in 10 going without essentials between November and May (71%), and almost half are in arrears with at least one household bill (48%). In addition to financial hardship, households with a disabled person are more likely to be experiencing health and wellbeing impacts from the cost of living crisis than households without a disabled person.
7 in 10 low-income households with a disabled person went without essentials between November 2022 and May 2023
At a minimum, all households need to be able to afford the essentials to get by, such as enough food to eat, a shower, and a warm home. Instead, we find 7 in 10 low-income households with a disabled person (71%) were going without essentials,[iv] compared to 6 in 10 (59%) households without a disabled person, and were more likely to be going without each type of the essentials we asked about. As Figure 1 shows, households with some disability types are much more likely to be going without essentials than others. For example, 86% of households with a person who has a learning difficulty, 83% with a cognitive disability, or 82% with a visual impairment, compared to 59% of households with a hearing impairment. We find these households are more likely to be on the lowest incomes, or have younger survey respondents, which our main report shows are both associated with higher rates of going without essentials and experiencing other key measures like being in arrears.
Record food inflation and very low incomes leave over half of low-income households with a disabled person experiencing food insecurity
In a wealthy, advanced economy no household should be going without enough food due to how much it costs, and yet we find 57% of households with a disabled person experienced food insecurity in the 30 days prior to filling in the survey in May 2023, compared to 43% of households without a disability.[v] Of households with a disabled person, 56% had cut back on the size of meals or skipped meals due to cost, compared to 42% of households without a disabled person. It is even more stark when we look at households going hungry due to how much food costs: 44% of low-income households with a disabled person, compared to 29% of households without a disabled person.
We find incredibly high rates of food insecurity among households with disabled people with certain disability or impairment types, as Figure 2 shows. Three quarters of all low-income households with a person who has a learning difficulty (76%) experienced food insecurity in the last 30 days, as well as 7 in 10 households with a person who has a visual impairment or cognitive disability (71%).
Through our work with JRF’s Grassroots Poverty Action Group,[vi] members told us about the additional struggle of affording appropriate food for disabled people. The group shared examples of not being able to afford ‘safe’ foods for autistic children, or not being able to afford the types of food recommended by health care professionals for people with particular health conditions, such as diabetes or people undergoing cancer treatment. Members sharing these experiences were all in receipt of Personal Independence Payment, which although it is meant to cover the additional costs of living with a disability, members spoke of having to spend it all on just trying to get by.
Many low-income households with a disabled person are taking on high-cost loans and falling behind on bills as they try to cope with rising costs
65% of households with a disabled person have a loan, compared to 56% of households without a disabled person, and for some these loans may be manageable. However, the situation becomes more concerning when households are forced to borrow at high interest rates (unsecured lending tends to have high-interest costs or penalties attached to it). Of households with a disabled person, almost 3 in 10 have a high-cost credit loan (28%), compared to almost 2 in 10 low-income households without a disabled person (19%).[vii] Households with a disabled person have an average of around £1,500 in high-cost credit loans, nearly £400 more than households without a disabled person. This kind of debt with already high interest is likely to continue to push these households further behind, as increasing interest rates bite.
With low incomes to begin with and rapidly rising costs, it’s not surprising that many households with disabled people are falling into arrears as they try to make ends meet. Almost half of all households with a disabled person (48%) are in arrears with at least one household bill or lending commitment, compared to 34% of households without a disabled person. Households with a disabled person were also more likely to be in each type of arrears we ask about, from rent and mortgage, through to energy and council tax. We see the same picture as above with households with a person who has a learning difficulty (65%), a cognitive disability (61%) or visual impairment (59%) are much more likely to be in arrears than other disability types.
We also find households with a disabled person have higher levels of arrears, owing an average of almost £1,700, around £200 more than households without a disabled person. Again, not all households with a disabled person are faring equally; average arrears for households with a person with a visual impairment are £2,200, and over £1,900 where households have a person with a cognitive disability or a learning difficulty.
As Figure 3 shows, we find the proportion of households with a disabled person in arrears has steadily increased across each of our waves of the cost of living tracker, since it began in October 2021. As the cost of living crisis wears on, households with a disabled person are falling even further behind, and are in significant levels of debt many will struggle to get out of.
Households with a disabled person are facing additional health and wellbeing impacts, with too many households facing the crisis alone
Many households with a disabled person are not only going without the essentials and facing more debt, they are more likely to be doing so alone. Of households with a disabled person, 43% reduced the amount of socializing due to cost in the last two years, with 71% of households who had experienced this also reporting that it had got worse or was new. We also found a quarter of respondents from low-income households with a disabled person reported feeling lonely ‘often’, compared to 16% of households without a disabled person.
Households with a disabled person were also faring worse on a range of health and wellbeing impacts we asked about, compared to households without a disabled person. As Figure 4 shows, households with a disabled person were more likely to live in damp housing, have a poor diet or have been losing sleep over the last two years.
The Government must do more to support households with a disabled person facing disproportionate levels of hardship as a result of the cost of living crisis
These findings paint a deeply concerning picture of low-income households with a disabled person struggling under the weight of the cost of living crisis, with very high levels of debt suggesting the impacts will drag on long after inflation eases. This does not have to be the case. We can reform the social security system to ensure it supports households with disabled people to at least afford the essentials, and not have to fall into debt just to get by.
The inadequate foundation of support through Universal Credit (UC) affects everyone receiving UC, and means other parts of the social security system, like disability benefits, cannot function properly. When the basic UC rate is too low to cover the essential costs of the household, other elements of Universal Credit or support such as Personal Independence Payments, which are meant to cover the additional costs associated with living with a disability, come under pressure to meet the everyday costs of the household. We need an Essentials Guarantee.
An Essentials Guarantee would embed in our social security system the widely supported principle that, at a minimum, UC should protect people from going without essentials. This would enshrine in legislation:
- an independent process to regularly determine the Essentials Guarantee level, based on the cost of essentials;
- that UC’s standard allowance must at least meet this level; and
- that deductions (such as debt repayments to government, or as a result of the benefit cap) can never pull support below this level.
The UK Government would be required to set the level of the Essentials Guarantee at least annually, based on the recommendation of the independent process. However, our analysis indicates that it would need to be at least around £120 a week for a single adult and £200 for a couple (JRF, 2023). At just £85 a week for a single adult, UC’s basic rate currently falls woefully short.
Our report on the Essentials Guarantee shows that over half (56%) of all working-age families in the UK with a disabled person would benefit from the Essentials Guarantee, and that around a million people who would be lifted out of poverty by the Essentials Guarantee live in a household with a disabled person.
If the Essentials Guarantee was implemented before the full roll-out of UC, it’s crucial that it should also apply to legacy benefits as a significant number of disabled people are still in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
Further information on our definition of disability:
|Type of impairments or health condition
|Proportion of low-income households reporting a person in their household with each disability or condition
|Mobility (such as wheelchair user or difficulty walking short distances)
|Hearing (such as deafness or hearing loss)
|Vision (such as blindness or low vision)
|Dexterity (such as difficulty lifting/carrying objects or using a keyboard)
|Learning difficulty: difficulties with reading, learning or concentrating (dyslexia or attention deficit disorder)
|Cognitive (dementia, autism, brain injury)
|Total households with a disabled person
*Note this does not sum to 36% as some households reported more than one disability or condition
We also asked respondents if any person in their households had a mental health condition, expected to last for more than 12 months. We excluded households who only reported a person having a mental health condition from our definition of disability, for this blog. This is because mental health conditions differ from other types of disabilities, and we will be publishing a separate piece on our findings on mental health. Households were mental health was reported alongside another impairment or health condition are included in our definition of households with a disabled person.
Savanta surveyed 4,004 UK adults aged 18+ in households in the lowest 40% of equivalised household income online between 3–18 May 2023. Data was weighted to be representative by age, gender, region, ethnicity and housing tenure. The data tables are available on Savanta's website.
A full methodology for the survey is available on page 31 of our main JRF report: Unable to escape persistent hardship.
[i] This is a survey about the household, rather than the individuals within it.
[ii] We defined ‘households with a disabled person’ as households containing at least one person with any of the following disabilities, expected to last more than 12 months: vision, hearing, mobility, dexterity, learning difficulties (difficulty reading, learning or concentrating), or cognitive. The person with a disability may be an adult or a child.
[iii] The latest ONS statistics show 32% of households in England and 38% of households in Wales had at least one disabled person, based on 2021 Census, while our sample also includes Scotland and Northern Ireland.
[iv] We define ‘essentials’ as going without things such as food, a shower or a warm home. For a full definition see Box 2 on page 11 of JRF’s full cost of living report Unable to escape persistent hardship.
[v] We define food insecurity as at least one member of the households has cut down or skipped meals, or gone hungry in the last 30 days due to cost.
[vi] JRF’s Grassroots Poverty Action Group comprises of 14 people with lived experience of poverty across the UK, who worked with us to develop the cost of living survey questionnaire and analyse the key findings in this wave of the survey.
[vii] We define a high-cost credit loan as owing money to a loan shark, doorstep lender, pawnshop or payday lender.