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UK families face stark choices just to put food on the table

  • 12/07/2022

New research from national poverty charity, Turn2us, lays bare the impact of soaring living costs as almost half its users (47%) report being left with nothing to live on each week after paying housing, council tax and utility bills.

The survey, completed by 2,730 of the charity’s service users, found that the same group of people reported weekly food costs of £75, leaving many pushed into debt just to put meals on the table for themselves and their families. This figure rises to £93 per week for families with children, with 49% reporting to have nothing left to live on each week – a slight increase from households without children.

This significant shortfall in people’s incomes to pay for vital essentials like food means most recipients of the first instalment of the £650 (£326 first instalment payment) announced in the cost-of-living rescue package– and which is expected to be paid on Thursday - will be used up in less than five weeks.

The charity’s survey also found that that over a quarter (26%) of Turn2us users plan to use the £326 payment to help pay for debt, and over half of people (52%) plan to use their first instalment to help pay a debt for utility bill arrears – leaving many with nothing to cover additional costs like food or fuel price rises.

The findings come as the latest child poverty statistics released today by the End Child Poverty Coalition reveal 3.6 million 0 to 15-year-olds in the UK were living in poverty in 2020/21, with rates in the North East and Wales increasing for at least two years in a row. Experts are warning the situation will only get worse next year as costs continue to rise and the government’s economic support package is likely to make little impact on people’s finances.

Turn2us has been tackling poverty in the UK for 125 years and is now asking how many more of us need to be pushed to the brink of financial crisis before the economy is fixed? The charity believes the government has the power to catch people before hardship spirals into long-term crisis and is calling on them to:

  1. Increase benefits in line with inflation and through an additional uplift to meet the cost-of-living.
  2. Invest long-term in crisis support to enable councils to quickly respond to severe need.
  3. Stop unaffordable rates of Universal Credit deductions for advances and debts immediately.

Michael Clarke, Head of Information Programmes at Turn2us, says: “Every day we see more people struggling to afford life’s absolute basics as the cost-of-living continues to push millions of people onto the edge of a financial crisis. We are hearing from parents who are skipping meals to try and keep their children fed, or who are making impossible choices between paying rocketing energy bills or rent. This isn’t right. Many people using our services come to us when they are at their most desperate and we fear the worst is yet to come over the coming months.

“The cost-of-living crisis must be the wakeup call to take urgent action. The £650 payment is a welcome cash injection for some, but more must be done in the longer term to ensure everyone can afford the basics and not be reliant on one-off acts of generosity from the government. It is therefore vital that benefits are increased in line with inflation as a minimum and that our social security system is strengthened in the future. As a country, we must ask ourselves how many more of us need to fall into crisis before we’re given sufficient support to weather this storm?”

Diane Coyle, Bennett Professor of Public Policy at University of Cambridge, added: “Following a decade of significantly low growth in incomes, the pandemic has left many people across the country in a financially vulnerable position. We have not experienced these kinds of economic pressures and shocks since the 1970s, which is desperately worrying for people on the lowest incomes as we know that stagflation hits them the hardest.

“While rising inflation and the cost-of-living crisis is the immediate problem, improved living standards for people of all income levels and across the UK will require the government to tackle deep-seated economic weaknesses that have been a decade in the making.”

Aneita Lewis, 49, from East London is a single parent who has been supported by Turn2us and is a co-production partner: “When I was younger we had to sit in the dark with candles because we didn’t have enough money for the meter – how can we as a country still be in the same position 40 years later?

"It's not just me, there are millions of people in the UK that have had to struggle to get by counting every penny. To go through life constantly thinking about money is a horrible way to feel and no one wants to feel like they just have to get by – you just want to get your bills paid and enjoy life. The school holidays mean I have to think of ways to stretch my money further.”

Turn2us is launching its ‘How Many More’ campaign to raise vital awareness of financial insecurity and to urge people across the country to join the charity in campaigning for long-term change. People can sign up to the campaign here.