More than a million people in the UK are living in destitution, a study shows. Research by Joseph Rowntree Foundation finds 668,000 households (1,252,000 people, including 312,000 children) unable to afford essentials such as food, heating ,and clothes.
More than a million people in the UK are so poor they cannot afford to eat properly, keep clean or stay warm and dry. More than three-quarters of destitute people reported going without meals while more than half were unable to heat their home. Destitution affected their mental health, left them socially isolated and prone to acute feelings of shame and humiliation.
Although the study could not demonstrate that destitution had increased in recent years, it said this would be a plausible conclusion because of related evidence showing austerity-era rises in severe poverty, food bank use, homelessness and benefit sanction rates.
Julia Unwin, chief executive of JRF, said: “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.” [SOYMB emphasis]
Destitution was defined by researchers as reliance on a weekly income so low (£70 for a single adult, £140 for a couple with children after housing costs) that basic essentials were unaffordable. People who met at least two of six measures over the course of a month, including eating fewer than two meals a day for two or more days, inability to heat or light their home for five days or sleeping rough for one or more nights, were also deemed to be destitute.
The most common causes of destitution were unsustainable debt repayments to public authorities such as council tax arrears, together with high rents and benefit delays and sanctions. These triggered financial shocks that pushed already poor households into periods of severe poverty often lasting months. Although paid work was seen by respondents as a way out of destitution, this was seen by some as hard to come by, while high housing costs meant that, in some cases, having a job was not enough to stave off severe hardship. One in 20 destitute households had someone in work.
Nearly four-fifths of people who fell into destitution in 2015 were born in the UK, with younger single men most at risk. Migrants, who face restricted access to jobs and benefits, were disproportionately likely to become destitute.
High destitution rates were found in former industrial areas in the north-west and north-east of England, Scotland, south Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as inner London. These areas typically had high unemployment and above average levels of long-term sickness and disability.
Prof Suzanne Fitzpatrick, director of the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Environment and Real Estate at Heriot-Watt University and one of the authors of the report, said: “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.