The latest poverty data shows that poverty and food insecurity were widespread across the UK before the pandemic began. Undoubtedly, for many the pandemic has caused even more hardship and has likely been made worse by the uncertainty of government’s cliff edge approach to vital support measures.
From being forced into u-turns on free school meals, to the last-minute extensions to vital income support schemes, the government has had to be pushed at every turn to support the most vulnerable children and families.
Any strategy for recovery must be decisively anti-poverty and must tackle the issues of insecure work, low pay, and inadequate social security that leave so many children and families struggling to survive.
Latest data for the year to March 2020, shows the number of people living in poverty reached 14.5 million, a record high.
And despite the narrative that work is the best route out of poverty, for many people this is simply not the case. Of those living in poverty just before the pandemic hit, a record-high 57 per cent (8.3 million people) were in working households.
The number of children living in poverty reached 4.3 million, up 200,000 from the previous year.
75 per cent of children living in poverty are from working households, again highlighting that while work should provide people and their loved ones with a decent living and secure income, for many families across the UK, it does not.
For the first time, this data has also shown the extent of food insecurity in the UK. Going into this pandemic, 5 million people face food insecurity. This includes 1.7 million children. And 26 per cent of children growing up in poverty live in households with low food security.
The food insecurity statistics also indicate how damaging the introduction of Universal Credit has been. Universal Credit is associated with much worse food security than legacy benefits, with 43% of claimants facing food insecurity.
That's worse than Job Seekers’ Allowance (37%), Income Support (36%), Employment and Support Allowance (31%), Child Tax Credit (21%), and Working Tax Credit (17%).
The data also shows that poverty disproportionately impacts on disabled people and single parent families (90 per cent of whom are women).
The number of people living in poverty and in a household where at least one member is disabled is 6.1 million (27 per cent). 30 per cent of families with a disabled child are living in poverty. This compares to 19 per cent among those who live in a household where no one is disabled.
Single parent families are significantly more likely to be in poverty than couples with children and those without children. 48 per cent of single parent families live in poverty, compared to 23 per cent of couples with children and 23 per cent of single people without children.
The impact of the pandemic
We know many people have struggled throughout the pandemic too. The TUC’s National Workers Survey, conducted between 19th-29th November 2020, found that over a third of working people (37 per cent) have seen a fall in their household’s disposable income since the start of the pandemic. This rises to 50% of low earners. One-fifth of workers (21 per cent) told us that they’d seen their levels of debt increase since the pandemic began. The rise in debt was particularly noticeable among low-paid workers, furloughed workers, those in receipt of benefits and disabled workers.
What needs to change
For many families ‘normal’ before this pandemic meant being at the sharp end of a labour market and social security system that left them facing insecurity and poverty. Any recovery from this crisis must focus on ensuring that people have enough to live on.
That means making sure people are in decent, secure work and that the safety net prevents poverty rather than entrenches it.
At the TUC we are calling on government to:
The government should also increase the short-term hardship funding provided to councils while also establishing a permanent fund that provides a source of grants to support those facing hardship. This will allow councils to implement properly funded long-term support for struggling households, rather than relying on the sort of short-term schemes we’ve seen pop up during the pandemic.
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