The UK is facing one of its worst cost of living crises in decades. Rising food, fuel and energy prices are generating a surge in household bills. Both the Bank of England and the Office of Budget Responsibility have warned that inflation could hit five per cent in the next few months. But with millions below the poverty line, and the likelihood that they will be joined by hundreds of thousands more, it is clear that the government is not doing enough for those struggling to make ends meet; rather, it seems intent on making life even tougher for the poor in our society.
Poverty in the UK is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon. According to a 2021 Parliamentary briefing paper, 14.5 million people in the UK were living in poverty (accounting for household costs) – including 4.3 million children – before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. This represents 22 per cent of the population – a damning indictment on the world’s fifth largest economy. Research findings published by the Legatum Institute indicate that the pandemic has pushed hundreds of thousands more people below the poverty line.
Against this backdrop, and with the pandemic raging on, the government has persisted with its plans to end the furlough scheme and eviction ban, putting thousands at risk of unemployment and homelessness. Simultaneously, it has announced tax hikes and axed the £20 uplift to universal credit (which itself has always been a botched system). The latter decision was described as “unconscionable” and “deliberately retrogressive” by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, who also stated that pushing ahead with the cut would likely breach international human rights obligations. In particular, he noted that the government had failed to carry out an impact assessment of the measure on its citizens, the need for which is “well-established” under international law.
Unlike the government, the independent social reform organisation, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has done its research. As a direct result of the cut to universal credit, 500,000 more people, including 200,000 children, will be living in poverty. The impact is already being felt; The Independent has reported that demand for food banks has soared since the cut was introduced, but a combination of increasing demand and supply issues means that 45 per cent of food banks are now faced with having to reduce the size of their food parcels or having to tell individuals that they cannot help them.
The optimistic tone set by the Chancellor in his Autumn Budget is in marked contrast to the current reality for individuals across the UK. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has stated that the combination of high inflation rates and tax hikes will result in “real pain” for low-income households and that “millions will be worse off in the short term”. Far from offering a glimmer of hope to those faced with the day-to-day struggle of providing the essentials for themselves and their children, they are increasingly having to decide whether to skip meals in order to keep the heating on. So much for the government’s promise to “level-up” the country.
To say that this government does not care about those living in poverty would be to resort to cliché; it would also be true. Of course, the cost of increased public expenditure has to be borne by someone. The problem is that the government has chosen to target the poor rather than those that exploit legal loopholes to avoid paying tax. We need to demand that the government change its priorities, whilst donating what we can to food banks and other support organisations which seek to help those in urgent and dire need. The nurses and carers we clapped for not so very long ago may well depend on that help.