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More than half of the UK population living in destitution are in long term ill health or are disabled people: new JRF research

09 December 2020

A new Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) research study, published today, highlights that more than half of the population (54%) living in destitution were in long term ill health or disabled with COVID-19-associated delays in the processing of disability-related benefits claims and appeals had had a detrimental effect on those involved.

The JRF says that ‘destitution’ “denotes the circumstances facing people Who cannot afford to buy the absolute essentials that we all need to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean.”

It continues:

“With more than a half (54%) of the whole destitute population being sick or disabled according to our quantitative survey, COVID-19-associated delays in the processing of DLA renewals and PIP claims and appeals had a detrimental effect on the mental health and material wellbeing of people in receipt of or applying for these benefits.

The loss of face-to-face contact with health and other services often hit participants with mental health or drug or alcohol problems especially hard, as they felt much less benefit from online or telephone-based support.

The difficulties of contacting local authorities on unaffordable telephone lines was a particular problem during lockdown when council offices were closed.”

The following groups are identified as those experiencing destitution:

  • single working-age people were at highest risk of destitution, but in 2019 we found more families with children experienced destitution.
  • three-quarters of those living in destitution were born in the UK.
  • just over-half were disabled people or had long-term health conditions.
  • many of those experiencing destitution were insecurely housed, staying in emergency or temporary accommodation, living temporarily with family and friends, or at risk of eviction from rented accommodation.
  • most relied on social security, although not all were eligible. Social security payments did not offer sufficient income to cover the cost of their essential needs, particularly if they were paying back debts or were being pushed to the brink by high housing costs.
  • for a minority, precarious work with uncertain incomes was a driver of destitution.
  • destitution levels are highest in the North East, London, and the North West.

The JRF says that in a society like ours it is “intolerable that so many people have experienced destitution”.

It recommends that the UK and devolved governments should:

  • make the £20 weekly uplift in Universal Credit (UC) and Working Tax Credit (WTC) permanent and extend this lifeline to those claiming legacy benefits.
  • work in partnership with people with lived experience of the social security system to ensure that debt deductions from benefits are not drivers of hardship and destitution. In particular, the minimum five-week wait for the first UC payment is a core driver of destitution, with many people forced to borrow UC advances to survive this period, leaving them facing unaffordable repayments.
  • invest in local welfare assistance, ensuring that every English local authority has a scheme that provides direct support, including cash, to keep added pressure off households when a crisis threatens to push them into destitution.
  • establish a targeted grant programme to support private and social renters who have fallen into arrears which they will otherwise struggle to pay back.
  • use the upcoming employment bill to reduce insecurity for low-paid workers by extending employment rights and investing in strong and effective enforcement.

Ken Butler DR UK’s Welfare Rights and Policy Adviser said:

“That over half of those facing destitution are disabled, including long term ill health conditions, is both shocking and shameful. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, benefit cuts and austerity hit disabled people the hardest. This new JRF report reinforces that as a minimum the £20 week UC uplift should not just be kept but extended now to all those receiving legacy benefits such a ESA.”

See Destitution in the UK 2020 and Briefing: The financial impact of COVID-19 on disabled people and carers both available from jrf.org.uk.

See also the related disabilityrightsuk.org news stories: