Rising prices in the face of fuel shortages and war in Ukraine are pushing up the cost of living across the globe. The squeeze on living standards is also acutely felt here in the UK. Soaring energy prices and record high inflation mean the country faces the biggest drop in disposable household incomes since the 1950s.
This week the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer used his Spring Statement to announce cuts to fuel duty and an increase in the threshold above which people pay social insurance. But these measure are unlikely to make a real difference for those on low incomes. Almost one in five people in the UK currently live in poverty, with some estimates suggesting that the cost of living crisis could push more than a million into deprivation.
Public misconceptions of poverty
Public opinion often frames those on low income as lazy and irresponsible. Experiences of people living the daily reality of poverty tell a very different story. They combine multiple jobs to stay afloat, stand in long humiliating queues at the foodbank and lie awake at night with worry about how to pay the next bill.
I’ve been speaking to those at the sharp end of making ends meet for the Poverty Unpacked podcast, some of whom were participants in the Covid Realities research programme, and they highlight the daily struggle and difficult choices faced by those living on little.
Caroline is a self-employed childminder living in Northern Ireland. Contrary to popular belief, her experiences show that work is not always the best way to get out of welfare. As a single mother, she is barely able to combine her job with care for her child and earn enough to keep the heating on throughout the day.
Welfare payments complement her income, but it isn’t enough. When Caroline fell ill and needed hospital treatment in the next town, the cost of petrol meant she needed to cut expenses elsewhere. For a while she received food through the local foodbank – now a lifeline for many families. She is grateful for support received but also critical of the celebration of foodbanks as a sign of care and community support. “Has our society become so inhumane that people have to beg for food?”
Shame of relying on handouts
Colleen from Brighton also relied on parcels from the local foodbank to help her and her daughter through rough times. She really appreciated the kindness of the volunteers there but also felt great shame at having to rely on handouts. “I think that other people don’t have an understanding [of what it is like to use a foodbank]. We live in a judgemental world. If you haven’t stepped in someone else’s shoes, you don’t know what it is like. The first time that I had to go was hard to swallow.”
I spoke to Caroline and Colleen during the Covid-19 pandemic but before the current cost of living crisis. The steep price increases of everyday items such as food will undoubtedly hit them hard. As an opportunity to respond to the current crisis the Chancellor’s Spring Statement was widely anticipated but it failed to deliver for those on the lowest incomes. While proposed changes will offer relief to some, measures do not protect against a drop in living standards, especially for those receiving benefits.
Policy choices and intentions
It is no wonder that Brian, a disabled single father living in London with his teenage daughter, questions the intentions of those in charge. Brian’s main source of income are disability benefits, having been in an accident a few years ago and unable to work since.
“They talk a lot about what changes need to be made, but the government never gives any money towards it to solve any of these problems.” Brian would like to offer his daughter more opportunities in life but stagnant welfare payments mean he has less to spend now than he did five years ago.
Unfortunately, things are about to get worse before they get better. The Chancellor was gloomy about the months ahead, and predicted inflation rates suggest that prices will only rise further. Many families will soon deplete any buffer they may have, with half a million children estimated to fall into poverty.
As the stories of Caroline, Colleen and Brian show, there is a real human cost associated with these numbers. As many more will be affected by hunger, worry and stress, they give rise to uncomfortable questions about policy choices leading to such cost. If anything, it requires us to challenge popular but false beliefs about poverty and why it’s so hard to escape it.