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Cost of living

5.7 million low-income households having to cut down or skip meals, as JRF’s cost of living tracker shows “Horrendous new normal”

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  • 5.7 million low-income households are having to cut down or skip meals because they don’t have enough money for food, while the number going without items such as food, heating or basic toiletries (63%) has remained around 7 million for more than a year.
  • 2.3 million low-income households on Universal Credit, more than two thirds of those receiving Universal Credit, have been forced into changing the kind of food they buy – including making less nutritious choices
  • Around nine in ten (87%) low-income households on Universal Credit have gone without at least one essential for the third survey in over a year – three quarters (76%) having gone hungry, cut down on or skipped meals in the last 30 days, demonstrating the urgent need for an Essentials Guarantee to protect the nation’s health.

Exceptionally high food inflation is combining with inadequate support from Universal Credit to create a “horrendous new normal” where levels of hardship are persisting and those on the lowest incomes are being forced into making impossible choices about how often they eat and which foods they buy, according to the latest cost of living tracker published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).

The tracker is the fourth in a series of large-scale studies of over 4000 households on low incomes (the bottom 40%) conducted by Savanta, focusing on the impact of the cost of living crisis.

Ahead of tomorrow (21 June)’s latest inflation figures, the survey exposes the ongoing effects of CPI inflation which has seen prices rise by over 18% in the last two years. These price rises combined with historically inadequate social security have meant that despite the government stepping in with cost of living payments to support those on low incomes, things are simply not getting better.

The number of low-income households going without essentials, going hungry and in arrears has not budged in over a year, and this is likely to have long lasting consequences on their family life, finances and health.

The effects of food insecurity
Record food inflation, which reached 19% at the time of the survey, replaced energy prices as one of the the biggest contributors to inflation in April 2023. 2.7 million low-income households (23%) experienced a poor diet, such as eating less nutritious meals, as a result of the cost of living crisis. Almost 1.5 million low-income households, more than four in ten on Universal Credit, experienced a poor diet.

The overall number of low-income households going hungry or cutting or skipping meals was 5.7 million (48%), and the number of households going without other essentials like showers, transport and toiletries was 6.5 million (56%).

Situation for people on Universal Credit almost universally dire
The situation has been almost universally dire for people on Universal Credit. 54% of low-income households receiving Universal Credit have been going without three or more essentials, showing the depth of this situation over a prolonged period in spite of cost of living payments from the government.

More than two thirds (69%) of low-income households on Universal Credit have changed the type of food they have bought, for example buying less fresh produce, and 68% have also cut back on food for adults, indicating that the effects of the cost of living now could have consequences for the nation’s health in years to come.

Rachelle Earwaker, Senior Economist for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said:
“Over the past year people have been telling us about being unable to afford hot meals, shampoo or a warm shower. We are seeing these levels of hardship persist and it has become a horrendous new normal – with over half of low-income households on Universal Credit going without three or more of the essentials that we all need to live.

“That places a huge burden on families in the here and now, but we need to get real that this is a hardship crisis that won’t end as inflation starts to fall. Higher prices will remain baked in, and cost of living payments, while necessary, are not even providing breathing space for people who desperately need it. That is because the Universal Credit system isn’t based on what people need to live on – even in a good year.

“The extraordinary levels of food inflation are also forcing people into buying less fresh and healthy food and more packaged, processed or less nutritious food. We know that poverty is already having a profound impact on the nation’s health and we face the moral outrage of life expectancy falling for some groups. At the same time, hardship on this scale will drive yet more demand onto the NHS over the years to come.

“It’s vital for this moment and for the years to come that as a nation we commit to an Essentials Guarantee, to ensure that Universal Credit supports us all to at least afford essentials, like food, utilities and vital household items, while we recover from setbacks. Without this, many families face the bleak prospect of running to catch up but never being able to because they are in a spiral of debt, rising prices and worsening health”.

JRF, together with the Trussell Trust, is calling on the Government to implement an Essentials Guarantee, to ensure that, at a minimum, the basic rate of Universal Credit at least covers life's essentials and that support can never be pulled below that level.

Additional key findings:

  • 1.7 million low income households accessed the NHS for a mental or physical health concern they reported to us (37%), while 1.6 million wanted to access services but were unable to due to cost pressures or other issues such as waiting times (35%).
  • Almost all (93%) who wanted to access the NHS but didn’t were going without essentials (1.5 million) suggesting that pressures on the NHS could be further impacted over the years to come.
  • Around four in ten (39%) low-income households report being behind on a household bill or a loan, amounting to 4.5 million low-income households with average arrears totaling almost £1,600. These figures haven’t moved below 4.5 million since October 2021
  • 3.7 million low-income households (31%) have less than £200 in savings
  • 2.6 million low-income households (22%) hold a loan with a loan shark, payday lender, doorstep lender or a pawnshop.
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