A stunning new report has revealed the daily struggle against destitution for more than 1.5 million people in the UK, including 365,000 children. 

Destitution means that they or their children have lacked at least two of six essential items over the past month, including shelter, food, heating, lighting, appropriate clothing and footwear, or basic toiletries.

And the number of people affected in 2017 is greater than the combined populations of Birmingham and Liverpool, according to the report by social change organisation the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). 

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Food was the most commonly lacked item, with 62% of people living in destitution saying that they had gone without over the past month. 

Some 47% lacked basic toiletries; 46% couldn’t afford suitable clothing; and 42% had to go without heating, said the report. 

Meanwhile, a fifth couldn’t afford to properly light their homes, while 16% had spent at least one night sleeping rough. 

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Of all destitute households, nearly half reported lacking three or more of these essentials in the month before they were surveyed. 

And, according to the JRF, "gaps, flaws, and choices within the social security system" are to blame for people "being left without support when they most need it."

“Many of us rely on public services such as social security when hit with unexpected circumstances like job loss, relationship breakdown, or ill health,” said Campbell Robb, chief executive of JRF. 

“Yet actions by government, local authorities, and utility companies are leading to ‘destitution by design’: forcing people into a corner when they are penniless and have nowhere to turn,” he said. “This is shameful.” 

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“Social security should be an anchor holding people steady against powerful currents such as rising costs, insecure housing and jobs, and low pay, but people are instead becoming destitute with no clear way out,” he added. 

“To be destitute doesn’t just mean getting by on very little, it’s losing the ability to keep a roof over your head, eat often enough, or afford warm clothes when it’s cold,” he said. “You can’t keep yourself clean or put the lights on. This shouldn’t happen to anybody, let alone over one-and-a-half million people in the UK.” 

The study found that those most likely to be at risk of destitution were single, younger men; while three-quarters of those living in destitution were born in the UK. 

And the rates are highest in northern English and Scottish cities, as well as some boroughs in London. 

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But as well as the indignity of living in destitution, the report found that many people affected were living with depression, severe stress, and anxiety, and others saying that they had felt suicidal. 

“It is clear from the people we spoke to that destitution has a huge impact not only on the practicalities of life but on people’s dignity,” said Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, lead author of the research, and director of the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, and Equalities Research (I-SPHERE) at Heriot-Watt University. 

“Destitution has many different uses such as sickness and ill health, debt, or even the direct result of a social security policy,” she added. “Most often it’s the end point of a build-up of problems associated with deep and ongoing experiences of poverty.”

The report showed that destitution had fallen by 25% between 2015 and 2017, but it also warned that there was a “real risk” this would unravel, with universal credit being rolled out across the country. 

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“While no-one should ever have to be destitute, we estimate that levels have declined by around a quarter since 2015,” added Fitzpatrick. “This is good news. It’s likely that this has been driven by a decline in benefit sanction rates and falling unemployment and immigration.” 

“However, the apparent higher levels of sanctions in universal credit are a sharp warning that destitution could increase again as the new benefit expand in the coming years,” she said. 

A spokesperson from the Department for Work and Pensions said the report “fails to take into account” that universal credit is “seeing people move into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system.” 

They said the report also didn’t recognise the “recent improvements we have made to universal credit, including continuing to pay two weeks’ housing costs for claimants moving onto universal credit, removing the seven waiting days, increasing advance payments to 100% and extending repayment times to 12 months.” 

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“Since 2010, one million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty and employment is at a record high, with 1,000 people moving into work every day,” the spokesperson added. “Meanwhile, we continue to spend £90 billion a year on welfare to support those who need it most.” 

The report, which was released on Thursday, came as a separate poll commissioned by the Independent found that almost 4 million adults — 1 in 14 adults in Briton — had had to use food banks. 

The poll questioned a sample of 1,050 adults, and found that 7% of the adult population had been forced to use food banks because they couldn’t afford enough to eat. 

It also found that a similar number had to skip meals, while it indicated that around 1 million people across the country had made the portion sizes of their child’s meal smaller because of financial constraints. 

Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN’s Global Goals to end extreme poverty by 2030, which include action on ending hunger, and ensuring that everyone has access to adequate shelter, and good hygiene and sanitation. You can join us by taking action on these issues here


Defeat Poverty

This New Report Paints a Striking Picture of Destitution in the UK

By Imogen Calderwood