Britain’s welfare system is ‘inadequate’ and in dire need of reform, experts warned on Sunday, amid fears millions more families will struggle to make ends meet amid the dual pressures of the pandemic and spiraling cost of living crisis.
Soaring food and rent prices, as well as energy bills – which are expected to more than double in April when the price cap is lifted, bringing the number of “energy-stressed” households to at least 6 million – are forcing families to choose between basic necessities such as food and heating, experts said, while growing numbers of people are being forced into debt and relying on food banks.
The warning comes as a damning report, due out on Monday, calls for rapid reforms to the social security system to protect low-income families from dire hardship, as its lead author warned they “don’t no longer have any resilience”.
Covid Realities, a two-year study by the Universities of York and Birmingham and the Child Poverty Action Group documenting the lives of 150 low-income families with children during the pandemic, says Covid has exposed and exacerbated existing issues with the benefit system.
“Our social security system is currently ill-suited to protect people from poverty and to provide individuals with some level of security as they face often temporary challenges in their lives – for example, the loss of a employment, relationship breakdown, parenthood and care work or ill health,” said Ruth Patrick, senior lecturer in social policy at York University and head of the research program.
“It was clear before the pandemic, but Covid-19 has further exposed and highlighted what it means when your social security system is simply inadequate.”
Patrick said many were struggling before the pandemic, which added to the hardships that are now compounded by the cost of living crisis. “People have just been beaten over and over again by things and they have no resilience left.”
She said many are forced to make ‘impossible’ compromises – sitting in the dark to save electricity or saving heat for the kids to get home – and live in fear for months to come. which also has an effect on mental health. “People are experiencing stress, anxiety and insecurity about how they will manage now and in the future,” she said.
The report, created with parents and carers living in poverty, calls for changes to the welfare system, which it says often increases financial pressures on families due to structural problems with Universal Credit, which has been reduced by £20 per week to pre-pandemic levels. in October.
Jo Barker-Marsh, 49, who lives with her 12-year-old son Harry in Manchester, said low-income people were already “on their knees” in 2020, but now the situation is even worse. “We don’t have a chance to recover from anything,” she said.
The former filmmaker, who lost her job as a part-time housekeeper at the start of the pandemic, said that due to her heating bills doubling, she was living in a room to keep in the heat and friends were helping to do the grocery shopping.
“We usually put on a lot of blankets, but it’s actually way beyond anything I can afford in my budget. I can’t budget for an increase of up to 54% for heating my home. She said she felt “sorry and angry.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are providing significant support for those on the lowest incomes, including putting an average of £1,000 more a year in the pockets of working families through Universal Credit, increasing the living wage to provide an extra £1,000 for a full-time worker, and help pay fuel bills and rent arrears. »
Labor has called for a ‘fundamental reform’ of Universal Credit and a reduction in VAT on energy bills, as well as the expansion of the Hot Homes Rebate Scheme, which offers a one-time rebate on electricity bill to those who are eligible between October and March.
Jonathan Ashworth, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: ‘Years of Tory economic ineptitude have dragged down workers, families and pensioners with soaring heating bills, punitive tax hikes, rising prices and the highest inflation in 30 years, which will mean real – terms cut into the support people are counting on in April. Combined with the universal reduction in credit, this will cause real hardship for families.
“Hopeless Tory ministers claim they can’t fix the five-week wait for Universal Credit. But it is clear that this system needs fundamental reform.
A study by the Resolution Foundation think tank found that the number of energy-stressed households spending at least 10% of their budget on energy bills would triple overnight in April to 27%, affecting 4 million additional households.
Jack Leslie, senior economist at the foundation, said the government must take urgent action, potentially offering targeted support either through Universal Credit or by expanding the hot house discount, or face a “catastrophe “.
‘If there is no political action there will be a really significant number in the UK who will struggle to get by,’ he said, adding: ‘It is absolutely a disaster is brewing and we know it is coming and something has to be done.”
The combined impact of the rising cost of living, high rents and last year’s housing benefit freeze is also causing problems, particularly in major cities like London, as well as in the South East, Northern Ireland, the Midlands and the South West.
Darren Baxter, policy manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an anti-poverty charity, said that across the country rent increases are “pushing far too many people into poverty”.
Victoria Benson, chief executive of the single parent charity Gingerbread, said urgent targeted support was particularly needed for single parents, some of whom go without food to feed their children and charge childcare costs to parents. credit card. “They have to make this really tough choice between food or fuel. It’s really difficult,” she said.
She also called for an increase in Universal Credit so that single parents can afford to feed their families and heat their homes: “It seems to me that there is something very wrong if working people don’t have still not have the means to feed their families”.