The number of children living in extreme poverty has tripled in the past five years, according to a new report which reveals the impact of the cost of living crisis on hard-hit families.
A growing number of households are skipping meals to save money, borrowing from relatives and turning to food banks as they struggle to meet their most basic needs, including staying warm and dry, clean and fed.
The report, from the Joseph Roundtree Foundation, shows that a total of 3.8 million people experienced poverty last year – a 61 percent increase from 2019. The number of children was 1.04 million, up from 362,000 in 2017.
Campaigners and politicians criticized the findings, with Action for Children calling the crisis “a disgrace that shames us all”.
Tony Lloyd MP, a member of the cross-party caucus on poverty, said the scale of the problem was “scandalous”. “Every political party should be saying, ‘We're going to fix this,' because it's a basic standard of decency in our society,” he said.
“No child should suffer from lack of warmth, live in a house that is not dry or not properly fed. In Britain, the fifth richest country in the world, these should be the staples of our society.”
Liz Kendall, Labour's shadow pensions secretary, said the report was a “damning indictment of this Conservative government”.
The former children's commissioner for England, Ann Longfield, warned that there must be “an urgent laser-like focus from within government on tackling child poverty so that we can consign child poverty to the history books and Dickens novels where they belong'.
A government spokesman said its “number one priority” was to reduce inflation. “We are providing support worth an average of £3,300 per household, including an increase in benefits of over 10 per cent this year, and we are increasing the National Living Wage again,” they added.
According to the survey, food was the main thing poorer families could not afford, with almost two-thirds of poor households reporting that they were hungry.
Single adults of working age were the most likely to live in poverty, with lone parents with children the second most affected. One mother told investigators she could only eat one meal a day, while another said she had not washed for two weeks because she could not afford washing powder.
Rising supermarket costs have also affected families. Mounira, a working mum of two who turned to a local food bank for help, said: “I am constantly faced with the dilemma of having to choose between providing my family with a healthy and balanced diet and a healthy social and active life. The cost of our grocery shopping has almost doubled, so have our bills, yet our wages haven't kept up, so I had no choice but to ask for help.”
London had replaced the North East as the hardest hit region, analysts said. Newham council had the highest level of extreme poverty in the country, with Manchester and Middlesbrough coming second and third respectively.
For the first time in the 2022 study, poverty was broken down by ethnicity, with analysts finding that the poverty rate among black respondents was three times higher than their share of the population.
The report – the fourth in a series of UK Poverty studies published regularly in recent years – attributes the rise to a combination of very low incomes, rising living costs and high levels of debt.
But it also said the social security system was failing to protect people from poverty, with nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of those in need last year receiving benefits.
The report combined a data analysis with a survey of nearly 4,000 of the poorest households. Of those surveyed, more than a quarter of households said they had no spare cash at all after paying their housing costs. More than half had incomes of less than £85 a week after paying for essentials.
One in 10 respondents were in paid work, with one single man working on a zero-hours contract telling researchers how he sometimes had to skip meals because his salary did not cover basic expenses.
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He said: “I just get a bag of rice, five kilos of rice. That's about £12. I make myself a vegetable stew and regular stew and leave it in the freezer in small bowls.' She said she tries to eat something every day, even if it's just a yogurt, but “there are days I don't.”
One mother said: “I only eat one meal a day. I'll probably have some toast when I get home from work, but I won't eat anything else until tea. The kids will have breakfast, obviously, and then they're at school for lunch, but I tend to only eat in the evening because I can't afford to buy things to eat during the day.'
Another said she had noticed an increase in the price of sanitary products: “My eldest daughter has a disability and is incontinent at night, so she has to wear night pads. They're not covered by the NHS so I have to buy them myself – they're £8 for 12 pads.”
One elderly man said he had cut back on buying clothes. “I get clothes from churches and things like that,” she said. “My brother is giving me some clothes. I buy some trainers and things like that, but I haven't bought clothes in a long time, to tell you the truth.'
Responding to the report, Action for Children called on Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to “keep his manifesto promise to use the benefits system to reduce child poverty”.
Imran Hussain, director of policy at the charity, said: “At the absolute minimum, all benefits should be increased by inflation in the usual way. That this is being disputed is extremely worrying.”
Charlotte Hill OBE, Chief Executive of the Felix Project, said food banks and community projects supported by the charity desperately needed more food to meet growing demand. He said: “Every single one of the charities we support needs more food and there are over 650 new organizations on our waiting list that we cannot help.”
Labor MP Lynne Brown said cases in her constituency had doubled. “People are in great difficulty, with high levels of debt,” he said. “The schools tell me the kids are lucky to get one meal a day at home. Many voters work more than one job and still can't afford exorbitant rents.”
A government spokesman added: “There are 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty since 2010, including 400,000 fewer children, but we know some families are struggling, so we are providing support.”