Low-income families are going without beds, cookers, meals, new clothes and other essential items as they struggle to cope with huge debts run up to pay domestic bills, according to a survey highlighting the cost-of-living crisis experienced by the UK’s poorest households.
Clients of the debt charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP) had run up an average of £4,500 in debts on rent or utility bills, forcing them on to what the charity described as a “relentless financial tightrope” juggling repayments and basic living costs, leaving many acutely stressed and in deteriorating health.
The pressure of coping with low income and debt frequently triggered mental illness or exacerbated existing conditions, with more than a third of clients reporting that they had considered suicide and three-quarters visiting a GP for debt-related problems. More than half were subsequently prescribed medication or therapy.
“The crippling reality of living in poverty and debt is still unashamedly evident in every home we visit, and year on year we see financial difficulty taking a tighter grip,” said Matt Barlow, the UK chief executive of CAP.
Experts said the survey highlighted the extreme hardship faced by the “new destitute” – people on low incomes who might in the past have been able to rely on a welfare safety net to help them through financial shocks but who now were forced to go into debt to survive, leaving them struggling to afford even the basics.
Debt had a crushing effect on living standards, the CAP survey found, with one in 10 clients unable to afford to buy or repair a bed, washing machine, TV, sofa or fridge. Roughly the same proportion could afford to acquire furniture only on punitive rent-to-buy terms, for example paying £6 a week to acquire a bed and mattress over a set three-year period.
The impact on family life was severe, with a quarter of clients saying debt caused relationship breakdowns, and more than two-thirds saying they felt unable to cater for their children’s needs. A sixth said they could not afford to feed their children three meals a day. A third feared eviction. A tiny handful of clients – predominantly single mothers – reported that they had turned to prostitution to make ends meet.
Prof Suzanne Fitzpatrick, of Heriot Watt University, the co-author of groundbreaking research into destitution, told the Guardian: “The new destitute are citizens who would previously have managed to avoid absolute destitution with the help of the welfare safety net. But the level of working age benefits is now so low that people barely managing to get by can easily find themselves in a position where they can’t afford even the basic essentials to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean.”
There are widespread concerns about rising pressure on living standards for low-income households as wages fall, working-age social security benefits remain frozen and inflation rises. The survey’s findings indicate that households are increasingly turning to high-cost credit to stay afloat, which CAP said was “an unsustainable solution”.
Nearly seven out of 10 clients helped by CAP in 2016 had fallen behind with payments for gas, electricity and rent, and 90% had taken out loans, run up overdrafts or used credit cards to meet domestic bills. There was a year-on-year increase in the proportion of clients using credit cards stay afloat, from 49% to 64%.
Damon Gibbons, director of the Centre for Responsible Credit, said: “Once again this report lays bare the human costs associated with debt problems. Debt affects health, including mental health; contributes to relationship breakdown; makes it harder to get back into and sustain employment, and has a host of negative impacts for children.
“With the continuing squeeze on household incomes and the failure of the Financial Conduct Authority to curb irresponsible lending resulting in greater indebtedness, we desperately need a national strategy to raise wages, restore the welfare safety net and provide better debt solutions.”
CAP clients typically live below the poverty line, and half have a disability or suffer from chronic ill health. Over a quarter of new clients last year were single mothers. Low income was the main reported reason for running up debt, with over 50% having borrowed as a result of benefit delays or sanctions. Others reported that they had been knocked off course financially after taking up caring duties, or paying funeral costs.
On average, CAP clients waited two years before seeking help with debts, the majority stoically believing they could sort it out themselves. Half said they had not sought assistance as a result of embarrassment or shame. CAP surveyed 1,200 clients. Its 306 debt centres helped more than 21,000 people in 2016, referred to them by churches, welfare advice agencies, GPs, job centres and social services.
The first attempt to measure the scale of destitution in the UK published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year found that more than 1 million people were so poor they could not always afford to eat properly, keep clean or stay warm and dry.
Chris Wenlock’s life spiralled rapidly out of control after a series of cruel shocks in the space of a few months left him on the brink of destitution: his mother died, his marriage collapsed and, unable to afford childcare, he was forced to give up work as a forklift truck driver to look after his two children, and his house was repossessed.
Wenlock, 43, of Cookstown, Northern Ireland, found himself rehoused by the authorities in an unfurnished house, with no beds, fridge or cooker. “My children would go to sleep on a bin bag stuffed with clothes with a coat for a blanket.”
While he faced a seven-week wait for benefit payments to come through he lived on £7 a week. A local charity bought beds for the family and he was dependent on bags of food from the food bank. He lost weight and became ill as a result of the stress. His lowest point was when social services considered taking his children into care.
“I thought: I have lost my mum, my wife, my house and my job, and now I was going to lose my children.”
Luckily, the family remained intact. After advice from Christians Against Poverty, Wenlock was able to begin to manage his debts. He was declared bankrupt and lives frugally. “I’m back on my feet, but physically, financially, mentally, it’s been a struggle.”
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