1.25 million people are destitute in the UK

The first comprehensive study into destitution in the UK has revealed that 1.25 million people, including over 300,000 children, are destitute, the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation announced today.

Destitution is the most severe form of poverty in the UK and means someone can’t afford the basic essentials they need to eat, keep clean and stay warm and dry.

The total number of destitute people in the UK, including UK citizens, is not currently measured by the Government. The report was commissioned by JRF in response to perceptions that extreme poverty had risen in recent years. It has been conducted by experts at Heriot-Watt University with advice from a wide range of experts and service providers across the UK, and has taken two years to complete.

The definition of destitution used in this study was developed with experts and tested with the general public (the only current official definition of destitution is in asylum legislation). They defined destitution as when someone lacked two or more basic essentials in one month. This means that, over this month, people have: slept rough, had one or no meals a day for two or more days, been unable to heat or to light their home for five or more days, gone without weather-appropriate clothes or gone without basic toiletries.

In total, researchers found that:

  • 1,252,000 people, including 312,000 children, were destitute at some point in 2015
  • 4/5 were born in the UK
  • Around a third had a complex need
  • Young, single people, particularly men, are more likely to be destitute, but there are considerable numbers of families living in destitution There is no single cause, but most people had been living in poverty for a considerable period of time before tipping into destitution. The most common causes are:
    • ​the extra costs of ill health and disability
    • the high costs of housing and other essential bills
    • unemployment
    • a financial shock like a benefit sanction or delay

The report finds that there is a very broad range of factors which can tip someone into destitution, and for many people is not due to a specific set of circumstances such as seeking asylum or having complex needs.

Most people had been living in poverty for a considerable period of time before becoming destitute. Many people named the extra expenses caused by disability and illness and the high cost of rent and household energy bills as triggers for destitution. Debt repayments were also a common reason for being unable to afford basic essentials. The most common were debts from social fund loans and benefit overpayments owed to DWP, council tax arrears owed to local councils, rent arrears, and debts to utility companies. Many people said that they were unable to afford necessities following a benefit delay or sanction.

The number of people experiencing severe poverty, which is linked to destitution, has been rising sharply in the UK since the economic crash in 2008. Areas with the highest levels of destitution mirrored areas with generally high levels of poverty. Some London boroughs, former industrial areas of the North of England and deprived coastal towns had the highest levels of destitution.

People who had experienced destitution said that they felt ‘demeaned, ‘degraded’ and ‘humiliated’ by having to get family, friends or charities to provide basics like food and toiletries. Destitute parents often went without things themselves so that they could provide more for their children. Many felt that destitution had a negative impact on their relationships with their children and with other family and friends, leading to social isolation. Destitution took a toll on many people’s mental health, and some reported physical health problems. Several said that they were unable to afford over the counter medicines for themselves or their families.

In 2015, destitute people reported problems with getting behind on bills (57%), serious debt (33%), benefit delays (40%) or sanctions (30%), serious health problems (29%), eviction (19%), problems with work (19%), breakdown in relationship with family members (25%), separation from a partner (14%) and domestic violence (11%).

Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said:

“There are a shocking number of people in the UK living in destitution. It is simply unacceptable to see such levels of severe poverty in our country in the 21st Century. Governments of all stripes have failed to protect people at the bottom of the income scale from the effects of severe poverty, leaving many unable to feed, clothe or house themselves and their families.

“Tackling the many causes of destitution is difficult. Many people affected are living on a very low income before they are no longer able to make their incomes stretch, or a financial shock like a benefit delay or family breakdown pushes them over the edge into destitution. We have to tackle these root causes. Government, businesses and communities need to work together to provide better emergency support, make basic essentials more affordable and create better jobs if we are to end destitution in the UK.”

Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Director of the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Environment and Real Estate (I-SPHERE) at Heriot-Watt University at Heriot Watt University and one of the authors of the report, said:

“Destitution takes a huge toll on people’s mental and physical health and wellbeing. The people we spoke to told us they felt humiliated that they couldn’t afford basic essentials without help. Many said that this affected their relationships and left them socially isolated.

“This report has shown that destitution is intrinsically linked to long-term poverty, with many people forced into destitution by high costs, unaffordable bills or a financial shock such as a benefit sanction or delay. More co-ordinated debt-collection practices, particularly from DWP, local councils and utility companies, could help to avoid small debts tipping people in to destitution.”

Researchers identified destitution by surveying people who came to voluntary sector crisis services, like foodbanks, debt advice charities, homelessness agencies, and specialist services for migrants, in nine areas over one week in 2015. They used these figures along with national statistics to calculate the number of destitute people in the UK across the year. It does not include people who only got help from their local council or Government programmes or those who did not seek help, meaning that the total number of destitute people is likely to be significantly higher.

JRF is calling on the Office of National Statistics to begin officially tracking the number of destitute people in the UK. Government, businesses, communities and individuals need to work together to provide better support for people in crisis, as well as reducing the costs of housing and basic essentials as well as creating better jobs that pay sufficiently.