FeaturesCost of living: wheel of misfortune

Cost of living: wheel of misfortune

The crisis is worsening with record numbers in poverty in the UK, and people’s health (or worse) taking the hit. Journalist Anna Scott uncovers the impact.

The cost of living crisis is rightly top of the news, and now top of most household agendas. Even since Community Practitioner reported on families feeling the pinch in our January/February 2022 issue, the crisis has stepped up several gears. Phrases such as ‘heat or eat’ have become a reality, and for some people the true cost of living is – tragically – their life. One study has predicted ‘a significant humanitarian crisis with thousands of lives lost’ because of ‘epidemic’ levels of fuel poverty (Institute of Health Equity, 2022).

‘Households across the UK currently face income falls of over £1000, with a further 1.3 million people at risk of falling into absolute poverty,’ says Casey Smith, researcher at think-tank IPPR Scotland. ‘The poorest and most vulnerable households within society have been hardest hit and, unless the UK Government acts with haste, will continue to bear the brunt heading into the winter.’

Since the end of September, the Bank of England has taken a number of steps to stabilise UK financial markets by temporarily buying market bonds in response to concerns about UK economic stability following a number of government announcements (BoE, 2022a). In October, it stated that dysfunction in the market poses a ‘material risk to UK financial stability’ (BoE, 2022b). Bank of England interest rate rises have caused mortgage lenders to increase the cost of borrowing, adding further pressure to home owners and first-time buyers.

Short-lived prime minister Liz Truss announced an Energy Price Guarantee in September 2022, which meant average annual payments for energy bills would not be more than £2500 annually for the next two years – an average saving of £1000 a year based on current energy prices (Prime Minister’s Office, 2022). But at the time of writing, this guarantee had been scaled back to six months, meaning bills were set to rise again from April 2023. The Treasury has launched a review into a more targeted way of supporting the most vulnerable in society from that date onwards (HM Treasury, 2022).

Runaway inflation, rising food and housing costs, spiralling energy bills and, on the horizon, potential benefit freezes and public spending cuts. The public is far from impressed with the impact on their pockets, and the ensuing chaos in Westminster and the financial markets. As Community Practitioner went to press, 52% of people polled said they would vote for the Labour party if there were a general election tomorrow, compared with 22% intending to vote Conservative (YouGov, 2022). ‘While a freeze in energy bills is welcome, this is the bare minimum,’ says Casey. ‘We need targeted financial support delivered through the benefits system for the most vulnerable households – those on low incomes, with disabled people and families with children – to keep them from falling into destitution.’

Meanwhile, governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have all introduced one-off payments to help people. In Belfast, a cost of living support package of £650 has been put in place for 2022 that includes one-off payments to people on income-related benefits, disabled claimants and pensioners (NI Direct, 2022). The Scottish Government has allocated £3bn to help with benefits, free school meals and concessionary travel (Scottish Government, 2022). The Welsh Government announced in July a fuel support scheme for eligible households to get a one-off payment of £200 (Welsh Government, 2022).

The Hardest hit

Larger families, single-parent families and disabled people are particularly at risk of needing support from foodbanks, and people on the lowest incomes and in receipt of Universal Credit (UC) are unable to cover essential living costs. ‘During the past three months, 34% have fallen into debt because they couldn’t keep up with essential bills, and 23% have been unable to travel to work or essential appointments such as the school run or medical appointments,’ says Beatrice Orchard, senior policy manager at the Trussell Trust.

According to the abrdn Financial Fairness Trust Tracker (University of Bristol, 2022), people in serious financial difficulty are those on low incomes, single parents, the disabled, renters, and people in large families. ‘It is those who spend the greatest proportion of their income on essentials that will incur the highest real inflation rates. They are often those with the least capacity to increase income as well,’ says Sara Davies, senior research fellow, Personal Finance Research Centre at the University of Bristol. ‘Many in these households cannot heat their houses less, or cut back on food without serious risk to their health, so will be put in a terrible position.’

Debt bomb

In addition, households with people of colour across the country, especially Black people, and lower-income households with young adults are more likely to be going without essentials (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2022).

‘People on low incomes have turned to borrowing to cover the essentials, taking on £12.5bn of new debt in 2022 out of a total £22bn,’ says Patrick Calver, campaigns and public affairs manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. He says rising inflation following a decade of freeze and cuts to the social security system have ‘left millions of low-incomes unable to afford the essentials even before the cost-of-living crisis hit this year’.

‘Arrears on all personal debt have more than doubled from £1.8bn to £3.8bn since October last year. This research paints a worrying picture for families on the lowest incomes even before winter and the prospect of higher energy bills,’ he says.

Evidence from the Trussell Trust’s network of foodbanks, Beatrice says, shows a 50% increase in the number of lowest income households being affected by the cost of living crisis, compared with the same period in 2019 and a 29% increase compared with the same period in 2021. ‘Foodbanks are also telling us that there is an increase in the number of people requesting cold food packages – food which doesn’t need to be heated to be eaten due to the cost of running an oven,’ Beatrice says. ‘They are also hearing that people are being forced to take cold showers and turn off their fridges and washing machines.’

The health costs

More than 10,000 people are estimated to die in cold homes in England and Wales each year, and there are concerns that widespread fuel poverty will increase this number (NHS Confederation, 2022). ‘Cold, damp homes make people ill,’ says Jo Bibby, director of health at the Health Foundation, in response to the government’s Energy Price Guarantee (Health Foundation, 2022). ‘When people are having to make a choice between heating and eating, their health is going to suffer. Many will face the stress of managing debt and, in the long run, the price will be paid in poorer health, more pressure on the NHS, and fewer people in work.’

The cost of living crisis is already affecting people’s health and wellbeing. ‘Thirty-six per cent [of people in receipt of UC] have been unable to pay for essential dental treatment for themselves or a member of their household when it was needed because they couldn’t afford to do so, and 18% have been unable to afford medical prescriptions, pain relief or other over the counter medication,’ says Beatrice.

‘Cold, damp homes make people ill.When people are having to make a choice between heating and eating, their health is going to suffer’

Mental health slump

The crisis also has an impact on general wellbeing. ‘We regularly hear reports that more and more working people are having to rely on foodbanks to feed their families and that some food banks are struggling to keep up with demand,’ says Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation.

As this pressure grows on people’s food budgets, they tend to turn to cheaper products that often have a lower nutritional quality. ‘Now, as prices of basic goods continue to soar, we need to see action to ensure that healthy products such as fruit and vegetables and plant-based options are as affordable as or more affordable than junk food,’ Anna adds.

Mental health is also suffering. ‘Stress, depression, anxiety – there are some people who just don’t see a way out,’ says Janet Taylor, chair of the CPHVA Executive and nurse manager, children’s services, South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust in Belfast.

‘Everybody is affected – staff, union members, clients. We’ve just come out of Covid-19 and people are trying to get on their feet again, and now this.’ Many people who have previously been financially comfortable, including community practitioners and healthcare workers, are now suffering. ‘We have nurses going to foodbanks now. It’s not just people who are unemployed,’ Janet says. In addition, rising fuel prices impact health visitors driving to clients. ‘HVs are visiting clients who might be in similar situations themselves.’

Help and support

Being able to signpost clients to sources of help and support with bills, food and health issues is a crucial role for HVs. ‘Giving practical advice is really important,’ says Janet. ‘Make people aware of what help and support is there.’ HVs also have the skills to have sensitive conversations with clients who may be struggling.

‘It’s very difficult to talk about not being able to afford things, as people have pride,’ Janet says. ‘But families might approach them for advice, or they might know about other families struggling, and [HVs] can help.’

But it’s for governments to really tackle this crisis, many say. The Food Foundation wants access to free school meals expanded. ‘This would be the single most effective action that could be undertaken to ensure children get at least one good meal a day – at a time when 800,000 children in poverty are known to be missing out,’ says Anna. ‘Increasing benefits in line with inflation and extending the Healthy Start programme would also have long-term benefits for parents on low incomes.’

The Trussell Trust wants an increase in support that is committed to low-income households with further payments through the social security system; an increase in social security payments in line with inflation; more affordable debt deduction rates from benefits; and a more tailored system and sufficient, long-term funding for local crisis support to help people cover unexpected costs. ‘Work is of course a vital part of the solution, but we know working, or working longer hours, is not an option for some people,’ Beatrice adds.

Sara says that targeted support of a magnitude similar to that given out to support people through Covid – such as reinstating the £20 a week UC uplift – is needed, but doesn’t think this will happen.

There are some positives, though. ‘The support package announced in May by then-chancellor [now PM] Rishi Sunak provided welcome targeted support for households on low incomes,’ says Patrick. ‘On top of a £150 council tax rebate for homes in council tax bands A to D and £400 off energy bills for all households, households receiving means-tested benefits benefit from an extra £650 split into two payments, with extra support for pensioners too.’

And on a non-governmental level, ‘good people are doing the best they can’, Janet says. ‘Groups, churches, foodbanks – they’re helping people – and there is goodwill and positivity.

But otherwise, it is very, very concerning.’


Government support


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Bank of England. (2022b) Bank of England widens gilt purchase operations to include index-linked gilts. See: bankofengland.co.uk/news/2022/october/boe-widens-gilt-purchase-operations-to-include-index-linked-gilts  (accessed 31 October 2022).

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