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ESA claimants levels of food insecurity sharply increase during COVID-19 pandemic: new research report

12 October 2021

ESA claimants did not receive the £20 per week uplift claimants, and probably as a result, their levels of food insecurity have sharply increased during COVID-19 relative to Universal Credit (UC) claimants, according to new research.

The study by Welfare at a (Social) Distance considers two levels of food insecurity:

  • any food insecurity, where the quality and variety of people’s diets were affected by lack of money (e.g. people couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals in the last 30 days);
  • severe food insecurity, where the amount of food that people eat has been reduced by lack of money (e.g. cutting the size of/skipping meals in the last 30 days).

The new research also finds that disabled people are much more likely to be food insecure or severely food insecure.

This only falls close to the level of non-disabled people if they receive both the extra disability-related payments in UC/ESA and the separate extra cost benefits PIP/DLA.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the research finds benefits that increased in generosity during - UC and Tax Credits - saw little change in food insecurity or severe food insecurity over time.

However, for ESA/JSA claimants, sharp increases in food insecurity and severe food insecurity during COVID-19 occurred. For example, 18% of ESA claimants were  severely food insecure in 2019/20, which rose sharply to 28% during COVID-19.As a result, the report recommends that to reduce food insecurity, policymakers need to make sure that disabled people receive adequate benefits.

Among  other conclusions of the research report are the following.

It is not possible to talk about food insecurity in the UK without talking about benefits. Among working-age people who are food insecure, 52.9% are claiming income/work-related benefits; and among people who are severely food insecure, 62.1% are claiming benefits.

The just-announced Household Support Fund will not compensate for the end of the £20 per week UC uplift. A £500m fund can only make up for the loss of £20 per week for 1m households (probably 1.3m adults). Even if the fund is targeted perfectly, it cannot cover all of the 1.7m who were severely food insecure, and can cover less than half of the 3.0m who had any food insecurity.

The end of the uplift not only risks more people falling into food insecurity; most UC claimants already in food insecurity will lose £20 per week as well.

While keeping the £20 per week UC would help, a significant fall in food insecurity would require a broader increase in the level of benefits. COVID-19-related changes (including the £20 per week uplift) were associated with an improvement in food security among UC claimants compared to those on legacy benefits who did not receive them.

But they are a “sticking plaster” on a broader problem: even with the uplift, half of UC claimants were food insecure, and around one-quarter were severely food insecure.

To reduce food insecurity, the under-occupancy penalty and the benefits cap should be abolished. Some policies that are strongly associated with food insecurity, including the under-occupancy penalty and particularly the benefit cap.

It does not matter if this is causal: it is clear that food insecurity is higher among people subject to these policies. To the extent that the aim of benefits is to avoid food insecurity, then it would be sensible to target increased generosity on those affected by abolishing both policies.

To reduce food insecurity, less money should be deducted from people’s benefits, and the five-week assessment period for payment in UC should be abolished. Direct deductions from benefits are strongly associated with food insecurity and severe food insecurity. It does not matter if this is causal: to avoid food insecurity, it would be sensible to target policies on people subject to deductions, as they are particularly likely to be food insecure.

While reducing the level of deductions to repay past debts would be an improvement, it would be better to design a system that did not lead to incurring these debts in the first place - including getting rid of the ‘five-week wait’ for payment.

To reduce food insecurity, the DWP needs to better help people deal with their wider debts. An outright majority (55.1%) of current claimants made debt repayments in the previous month (outside of any deductions); a quarter reported repaying more than £100.

Claimants repaying debts were 20 percentage points more likely to be food insecure and 10 percentage points more likely to be severely food insecure. If benefits are to provide an adequate income, then claimant debt must be taken into account – e.g. by better providing or signposting to debt advice, and making claimants aware of the ‘Breathing Space’ scheme.

The Welfare at a (Social) Distance Hunger and the welfare state: Food insecurity among benefit claimants during Covid-19 is available from distantwelfare.co.uk