Flagship study on destitution finds half a million children experiencing extreme hardship across the UK

A new flagship study reveals an ‘appalling’ rise in destitution in the UK between 2017 and 2019, even before the pandemic hit.

A new report on destitution reveals:

  • Around 2.4 million people experienced destitution in 2019, a 54% increase since 2017
  • This included 550,000 children, a 52% increase since 2017
  • Families with children are increasingly likely to experience destitution
  • One in seven (14%) people experiencing destitution are in paid work
  • Destitution is becoming more concentrated in northern regions

Inadequate benefit levels and debt deductions, particularly the repayable advance many people are forced to borrow to cover the minimum five-week wait for Universal Credit, are identified in the report as key drivers of destitution. With evidence of rising debt and hardship since Covid-19 hit, there are fears that the pandemic may have pushed people experiencing destitution closer to the brink. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is calling for urgent action to make the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit permanent, to help stem the rising tide of destitution.

The report is the third in a series of Destitution in the UK studies, published every two years by JRF and undertaken by Heriot-Watt University. The report consists of a large-scale survey to generate an estimate of the scale of destitution at the end of 2019, together with interviews with 70 people in spring 2020 after the pandemic hit. Destitution, as defined by the public and experts, occurs when a household cannot afford two or more of the essentials that we all need to live, like shelter, food, heating and clothing.

Who is experiencing destitution?

While single people continue to face the highest risks of destitution, lone parents are now more likely to face destitution than previously. The number of children experiencing destitution in 2019 has risen by 52%, or by an additional 185,000 children compared to 2017.

People who experience destitution in some cases report complex needs such as homelessness, or drug and alcohol problems, but 81% do not. 54% of people experiencing destitution have a chronic health problem or disability.

One in seven (14%) people experiencing destitution are in paid work. This reflects people’s experience of precarious forms of employment, characterised by irregular hours and fluctuating income. One man who was interviewed said: “I was doing some zero contract hours and sometimes they could just terminate my employment.” Several people interviewed after Covid-19 hit had lost their jobs as a direct result of the pandemic, with the majority turning to Universal Credit for support.

Half of people experiencing destitution were claiming or had applied for Universal Credit when the survey was carried out. Debt deductions from benefit payments are identified as a key driver of destitution, in particular the repayable advance many are forced to take up to cover the minimum five-week wait for the first payment of Universal Credit. These debt deductions reduce peoples’ incomes to such an extent that many are pushed into destitution.

One woman who was interviewed for the research said: “You start Universal Credit in debt, because you have to take that advance. If you've got enough money to live on, you wouldn't claim Universal Credit, so I don't see how there's anyone on Universal Credit that can survive without that advance.”

Debt deductions can also be made for rent arrears, council tax loans and benefit sanctions among other things. Inadequate levels of housing benefit in the private rented sector are another common factor in leaving people very little to live on.

Where is destitution increasing?

Since 2017, there has been a marked increase in levels of destitutions in all regions and types of locality, but with the greatest rise in northern cities and towns. The highest average rates of destitution are in the North East, followed by London and the North West. Yorkshire and Humber, the West Midlands and Scotland also have relatively high rates of destitution. Middlesbrough, Manchester, Hull, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham and Blackpool are some of the areas with the highest estimated rates of destitution.

The impact of Covid-19

The interviews with 70 people conducted in spring 2020 give an insight into the impact of Covid-19 on people experiencing destitution. Many people found that the added pressures brought about by the pandemic pushed them closer to the brink.

Some people struggling to meet their housing costs were kept afloat by the moratorium on evictions and were expecting to be evicted when this ended. Others were paying rent arrears with credit cards. People reported not being able to access support through food banks during lockdown because they could not access referral agencies such as Job Centres in the normal way. The closure of libraries had a negative impact on people with complex needs and people who had migrated to the UK, as it cut them off from their main source of internet access. People with complex mental health needs were hit especially hard by the closure of face-to-face support services.

How we can turn back the tide of destitution

JRF is urging the Government to make the £20 uplift to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits introduced in March permanent, as it has been a lifeline for families on the lowest incomes this year. Half of all households experiencing destitution were receiving or had applied for Universal Credit in 2019, and the increase has helped people to afford food, electricity and other essentials during the pandemic, alleviating destitution. This lifeline is due to be cut in April 2021 which would mean 6.2 million families would lose £1,040 from their annual budget. This will pull many people under and will further increase the numbers facing destitution.

People receiving legacy benefits, largely people who are disabled, sick or caring for others, have so far not received an equivalent boost to their income. JRF is calling for the Government to right this injustice and extend the lifeline to this group.

JRF also recommends an end to unaffordable debt repayments from benefits; removing the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment;ii and investment in local welfare assistance, ensuring that every local authority in England has a scheme that provides direct support, including cash, to people in crisis.

Helen Barnard, Director of JRF said:

“It is appalling that so many people are going through this distressing and degrading experience, and we should not tolerate it. No one in our society should be unable to afford to eat or keep clean and sheltered. We can and must do more.

“The pandemic has shown just how much we want to look out for each other in difficult times, but the sobering truth is that even before Covid-19 hit, the number of people in destitution was rising sharply.

“Our social security system should act as an anchor to hold us steady when we’re pulled down by powerful currents like job loss, illness or relationship breakdown. But right now, our system is not doing enough to protect people from destitution.

“The Government can act now to confirm that the £20 boost added to Universal Credit will be made permanent and extended to people receiving legacy benefits. And by working with people with experience of receiving social security, the Government can re-design our systems so that they keep people afloat, rather than drag people down.”

Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, from the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Equalities Research (I-SPHERE) at Heriot-Watt University, said:

"Our findings clearly show that levels of destitution in the UK were already rising sharply prior to the pandemic and the impact of Covid-19 has intensified the difficulties many people face accessing the help they need to meet their most fundamental needs.

"The sheer scale of the issue is unacceptable in one of the world's richest countries and starkly reveals the devastating impact of the gaps, flaws and deductions in Universal Credit and other aspects of the social security system that lead to destitution by design."