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JRF launch report on Destitution in the UK

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) have today published a research report on ‘Destitution in the UK.’

The report defines destitution in the UK, looking at how many people are affected, who they are, and the main pathways in and out of destitution. It looks at the impact and experience of those people directly affected. Housing Rights assisted JRF with assessing the levels of destitution in Northern Ireland.

Destitution defined

The definition of destitution used by JRF was developed through interviews with key experts, and endorsed by the public in a survey of 2,000 adults across the UK. Fundamentally, destitution describes people who ‘cannot afford to buy the essentials to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean’:

Who is destitute?

JRF estimate that in 2015, 668,000 households containing 1.25 million people, of whom 312,000 were children, were destitute and in contact with voluntary sector crisis services including Housing Rights.

The groups most likely to become destitute were younger single men, and migrants who make up 21% of destitute persons; however lone-parent families were also disproportionately affected.

How do people become destitute?

The research emphasises that there is no single cause of destitution; a number of interacting factors affect different segments of the destitute population in different ways.

The authors broadly split those defined as destitute into 3 groups:

  • UK - other
  • UK - complex needs
  • migrants

In the UK – other group, which encompassed UK residents without complex needs, common immediate causes of destitution included benefit delays and sanctions, high living costs (particularly housing and energy) and unsustainable debt repayments, often in the form of recovery of benefit overpayments.

In the UK – complex needs group, the impact of benefit delays and sanctions interacts with long-term health problems, traumatic backgrounds and addictions, resulting in destitution. Whilst some in this group prioritised drugs and alcohol over essential items, most had incomes so low that they would be defined as destitute regardless of this.

Finally, migrants, who in addition to benefit delays, living costs and debts, often faced compounding difficulties including lack of access to the labour market, benefit eligibility restrictions, and limited social and support networks.

The prevalence of benefit sanctions and recovery of overpayments in causing destitution is significant, given the rise in usage of food banks in Northern Ireland, and the links between benefit sanctions and food poverty. Welfare Reform is likely to significantly increase the imposition of benefit sanctions in Northern Ireland. The Evason Mitigations Working Group’s recommendation for dedicated independent advice on sanctions is welcome in this regard.

Experiences of destitution

Going without food was the most common experience of destitution, reported by 76% of destitute service users. This was followed by lacking clothing and shoes suitable for the weather (71%), access to basic toiletries (63%) and inability to heat their home (56%).

Interviewees reported a wide range of ‘self-help’ strategies in an effort to cope; this often included radical economising, such as skipping meals, to afford other essentials or to ensure that children were able to eat. Almost all interviewees were explicit about how demeaning and degrading they found it to seek help for basic material needs from charities, despite the kindness encountered from staff and volunteers.

Escaping destitution

The majority of interviewees did not manage to move out of destitution. For the minority who did, the most critical factor was the ending of a sanction or a change in benefit eligibility, including the resolution of problems with disability benefits. Other factors include cheaper housing, employment, paying off debts, support for complex needs and even warmer weather.

The authors conclude that destitution is closely linked to broader poverty. Tackling destitution requires action on the fundamental drivers of poverty, as well as better emergency support for those in destitution and crisis. Monitoring destitution in Northern Ireland will continue to be a key priority for Housing Rights, particularly in the light of incoming Welfare Reform and changes to the Social Security system.

Tagged In

Fitness, Welfare Reform, Homelessness, Equality


Stephen Orme

This article was written on 27 April 2016. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.