Research revealed that basic benefits given to low-income households are at least £140 a month below the real cost of food, energy and everyday basics.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and the food bank network the Trussell Trust said inadequate benefits were the main driver of the explosion in destitution and food bank use in recent months.
The two charities have calculated the weekly cost of a basic existence to be £120 for a single adult and £200 for a couple, based on a basket of goods and services including food, energy, travel, mobile phone and internet use, as well as smaller items such as toothpaste and washing-up liquid.
By comparison, even after April’s 10.1% benefits uprating, the universal credit standard allowance – the portion of the monthly benefit payment meant to cover basic living costs – will be £85 a week for a single adult aged over 25 (£35 less than the charities’ estimates) and £134 a week for a couple (a £66 gap).
In reality, more than half of households on universal credit receive even less than the basic £85 rate because of monthly caps and benefit deductions amounting to hundreds of millions of pounds a year, the charities say. A single adult facing deductions would typically see their basic rate allowance drop from £85 to £64 a week.
The charities have been increasingly alarmed by the unprecedented scale and depth of poverty witnessed in food banks, warm rooms and advice agencies this winter. Millions of low-income households have been left unable to afford even bare essentials as the cost of energy and food has rocketed, leading to overstretched welfare emergency services and shocking examples of extreme hardship.
They say the cost of living crisis has exposed a disastrous long-term erosion of benefits, whose value has fallen to a 40-year low in real terms as a result of freezes and cuts. This has led to rampant food insecurity, children turning up at school hungry, and the phenomenon of disabled people risking their health because they cannot afford energy bills.
A typical worker losing their job can see their income fall off a cliff when they claim unemployment benefits; universal credit replaces just 13% of average earnings.
The JRF chief executive, Paul Kissack, explained that the “so-called” welfare safety net had floated completely free from the economic reality of people’s lives.
“With millions of low-income households going without essentials like food and heating, and food bank use at record levels, it is plain the system is failing,” he said.
The Trussell Trust chief executive, Emma Revie, said that even when its food banks helped vulnerable clients to claim their full benefit entitlements, in many cases their newly enhanced incomes still did not cover their basic living costs.
“People have cut and cut, but you cannot budget if your budget isn’t enough,” she said.