Destitution, a word redolent perhaps of a kind of grotesque, long-ago Dickensian hardship, is back. It describes a chronic poverty so acute that those afflicted can’t afford to eat properly, stay warm and dry, and keep clean. This, sad to say, has resurfaced as a thoroughly modern British condition. It may seem hard to grasp in a country as wealthy as ours but destitution is impossible to ignore, and appears to be growing.
The Labour MP and anti-poverty campaigner Frank Field made this point last week, telling an audience of government statisticians that “clearly something unique and horrendous is happening to the bottom end of our society”. Field had lurid destitution tales from his Birkenhead constituency: the child sent to scavenge for food in a supermarket bin by its parent; the family who begged for candles at the food bank because they had no money for electricity; the starving family whose baby was found crawling around on bare floorboards with nails sticking out.
Destitution is showing up in the data too. A recent Oxford University study carried out for the Trussell Trust found that 80% of people using food banks were severely food insecure, meaning they regularly went whole days without food. Average household income for this group was £319 a month; one in six reported no money coming in at all over the previous four weeks. A separate study by Christians Against Poverty found similar levels of deprivation: families going without food, toiletries, and even beds, while locked into high-cost credit, reliant on food handouts, and prone to dangerous levels of stress.
More than a million people in the UK experienced destitution in 2015, including 312,000 children, according to a groundbreaking study by Heriott Watt University academics for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published last year. It defined destitution in two ways: experience of at least two of six poverty measures over the previous month, including eating fewer than two meals a day for two or more days; or a weekly income after housing costs of £70 for a single adult or £140 for a couple with children. This was an income level below which people “cannot meet their core material needs for basic physiological functioning from their own resources”.
It was striking that the team’s review of recent academic literature on the subject found little mention of destitution before 2012, except in relation to asylum seekers: people with restricted entitlement to social security help. Destitution became visible, however, when austerity cuts to social security started to leave vulnerable people who are ostensibly inside the welfare system without support. Benefit freezes, the benefit cap, sanctions, social fund abolition, the long weeks of waiting for universal credit payments or fit-for-work test appeals: these policy decisions have let destitution flourish. Those disproportionately likely to be destitute – younger single men, single parents, people with a disability – are unsurprisingly also those hit hardest by welfare reform.
Suzanne Fitzpatrick, housing and social policy professor at Heriott Watt who led the work, describes this as the “new destitution”: people who once might have expected the welfare safety net to help them avoid extreme deprivation but who now have no such guarantee. For them, low income compounds vulnerability to financial shocks: unexpected energy bills, the loss of a job. Working-age social security benefits levels have fallen so low, she says, that it is too easy to slide into desperate hardship.
A first step to tackling this hardship would be to reverse the £4bn-a-year freeze on working-age benefit rates currently planned to last until 2020. Neither of the two main parties appears to have any solid interest in doing this. But destitution – an unfolding public health crisis, cost of living catastrophe and social policy disaster rolled into one – is not going away soon.