Hundreds of thousands of disabled people in Britain destitute – report

© Luke MacGregor
Hundreds of thousands of disabled people in Britain are forced to live in destitution and are unable to afford basic requirements such as food, shelter and clothing, the UK’s first study examining extreme poverty suggests.

The report, which was commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), was published earlier this week. Amid growing concern that extreme poverty is on the rise in Britain, the UK-based group pushed for academics to investigate the matter.

Toxic debt & spiraling health costs

The groundbreaking study was conducted by researchers at Herriot-Watt University, a range of other experts and a number of key UK service providers.

Central to its findings was a new method to measure the scale of extreme poverty - or destitution - in Britain.

The report revealed that 1.25 million people faced destitution in 2015, 312,000 of whom were children. The vast majority (80 percent) were born on British soil.

Individuals burdened with toxic debt and an inability to pay for spiraling health costs were found to have faced a tipping point, which pushed them from an impoverished state into a state of destitution, where life’s basic essentials were beyond their grasp.

In order to discern whether an impoverished person can be defined as destitute, the report’s authors said they must lack two or more essentials deemed vital for basic living over a four-week period.

People who fell into this category included: those who had been forced to sleep rough; had no meal or just one per day over a period of 48 hours or longer; were unable to heat or light their home adequately for five or more days; lacked weather-proof clothes or had to go without basic toiletries.

Key drivers of destitution

No central cause for destitution was uncovered. However, key drivers included financial shocks such as delays or sanctions to benefit payments, spiraling financial costs of ill health, soaring rental and property prices, and joblessness.

While the study found that destitution driven by a sharp drop in citizens’ income was “largely benefit-related,” it also noted that other "triggers” for those on “extremely modest incomes” included difficulty in affording extra health-related expenses.

Forty percent of those who faced extreme poverty said they had been hit by delays to their benefits payments, while 30 percent said their benefits had been sanctioned.

A further 30 percent said they were dealing with severe health problems.

“Some research participants found themselves having to spend money on specific items related to their ill-health that pushed them into a destitute situation and thus they came to lack other necessities,” the report said.

“Examples included people with special (and expensive) diets, and those who had to pay for taxis to hospital appointments (as their only viable transport option).” 

The report also noted that many people who had faced destitution had to endure unsustainable debt.

A significant number of individuals who had faced extreme poverty had been hit by heavy expenditure on some combination of the following: toxic debt and/or unrealistic schedules for arrears repayments; housing costs that were unaffordable; other inflated living costs; and heavy expenditure on health and disability-related requirements.

'Government has lost its moral compass'

High rates of destitution were uncovered in ex-industrial areas across the northwest and northeast of England, Scotland, South Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as in inner-city London.

Unemployment was rife in these regions, while rates of long-term sickness and disability were also found to be above average.

While young, single citizens – especially men – were found to be more likely to face destitution, considerable numbers of families were also revealed to suffer extreme poverty.

Anita Bellows, a member of UK campaign Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said government policies are responsible for the level of extreme poverty currently seen across the UK.

“The explosion in foodbanks and in homelessness, the resurgence of ricketts, Victorian diseases and malnutrition are all due to choices this government made,” she told RT on Friday.

“The refusal of this government to make an assessment of the cumulative impact of cuts on disabled people, to conduct an inquiry into the impact on sanctions,  its reluctance to respond to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests and its eagerness to appeal any judgement passed in favor of claimants indicate a government, which has lost its moral compass."

Bellows acknowledged that personal circumstances can impact upon people's financial resources, but argued that the government is ultimately accountable for the UK's extreme poverty crisis.

“This report should have been written by the government, which has a legal and moral duty to monitor the impact of its policies," she said. 

"The fact that it is left to civil society to hold this government accountable should shame us all.”

Victims of extreme poverty

Director of the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Environment and Real Estate (I-SPHERE) at Heriot-Watt University, Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, who was a key author of the report, said destitution severely impacts people's physical and mental health.

“The people we spoke to told us they felt humiliated that they couldn’t afford basic essentials without help. Many said that this affected their relationships and left them socially isolated,” she said.

“This report has shown that destitution is intrinsically linked to long-term poverty, with many people forced into destitution by high costs, unaffordable bills or a financial shock such as a benefit sanction or delay. More co-ordinated debt-collection practices, particularly from DWP, local councils and utility companies, could help to avoid small debts tipping people in to destitution.”

Chief Executive of the JRF Julia Unwin said the number of people living in destitution across the UK is shocking.

“It is simply unacceptable to see such levels of severe poverty in our country in the 21st Century,” she said.

“Governments of all stripes have failed to protect people at the bottom of the income scale from the effects of severe poverty, leaving many unable to feed, clothe or house themselves and their families.”

The report’s authors identified those who were destitute by surveying people who relied on charitable crisis services such as foodbanks, debt advice groups, homelessness groups, and key services for migrants. Samples were taken from nine areas across the UK over a seven-day period in 2015.

This did not factor in those who only received help from councils or state programs, or those who found themselves in deep financial crisis but did not seek assistance. In light of this fact, the true number of people living in destitution in Britain was estimated to be “significantly higher” than 1.25 million.