Living standards for UK's poorest plunge during pandemic

By Patrick Butler

Living standards have plunged for some of the UK’s poorest families during the coronavirus pandemic, with over a third reporting they are financially even worse off since lockdown, according to Save the Children.

The charity’s survey of households on universal credit or working tax credits found nearly two-thirds had run up debts over the past two months, 60% had cut down on food and other basics, and over a third had relied on charities for food and clothes.

It warned the end of the government’s job retention scheme meant this winter would be “more difficult than ever” for low-income families and called on ministers to help by boosting the weekly rate of child benefit by a minimum of £10 a week.

“Poverty and hardship are likely to soar in the coming months, with further lockdowns, rising unemployment and economic uncertainty all pointing towards a difficult winter for families with children,” the charity said.

Save the Children’s survey of over 3,100 parents of children under 18, carried out in September, suggests widespread disappointment in the level of help on offer through the government’s job support scheme launched earlier this month.

While half of those surveyed before the chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement felt the government was doing enough to help low-income families like them, this dropped to just 37% after the announcement.

There was also surprise among parents who had turned to the social security system for the first time in recent months at how little protection they received through the benefit system compared to when they were in employment.

“This is the first time I’ve been on benefits – and it’s a huge difference from when I was working. Sometimes I think to myself, I’ve paid enough into the system so why can’t I get enough back when I need it?” one respondent said.

Almost two-thirds of respondents reported going into debt during July and August, with the average amount loaned – in most cases from family and friends – around £1,700.

Over a quarter of respondents said it was harder to afford food compared to the start of the pandemic, while 22% reported using a food bank. Save the Children said the most popular item in its emergency grants scheme for hard-up families is its supermarket food voucher, worth an average £113.

The charity called for the £20 a week temporary uplift to universal credit and tax credits announced in March to be retained after next April. Asked how they had spent the £20 boost so far, 45% of respondents said on food, 32% on rent or mortgage and 23% on clothing.

“It’s just not right that parents are having to borrow money, sell their possessions or rely on charity to buy winter coats for their children. Our country’s safety net is supposed to help those who need it through difficult times,” said Becca Lyon, Save the Children’s head of child poverty.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “Universal credit is providing a vital safety net to those affected by the pandemic and we have injected more than £9.3bn into the welfare system – including increasing universal credit by up to £1,040 a year – to help those in most need.

“We have provided further support by introducing income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and additional help for renters. This is in addition to the significant steps already taken to support the lowest paid families, including raising the living wage, ending the benefit freeze and increasing work incentives, and there are 100,000 fewer children living in absolute poverty than in 2009/10.”