Destitution in Britain compounded by 2020 crash and covid shutdowns

How can it be that there is so much want in the midst of so much plenty?

Proletarian writers

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The existence of so many destitute families and individuals in our society is a damning indictment of the capitalist system in crisis, which is fundamantally incapabable of meeting even the most basic needs of all, despite having created more wealth than it knows what to do with.

Proletarian writers

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Britain ranked as the fifth wealthiest country in the world in 2019, yet it was home to 2.4 million destitute individuals; a sickening and shameful fact that exposes the harsh reality of life under capitalism. Since then, the situation has only become worse.

Late in 2020, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released Destitution in the UK 2020, the third report in a series investigating the lives of the poorest people in the country. Their first investigation had been undertaken in 2015 and the exercise has since been repeated every two years. The foundation of much of the latest report was drawn from the study conducted in 2019, supplemented by further work undertaken in 2020.

Defining destitution

The report defines a person as destitute if either “they have lacked two or more of the following six essential items over the past month, because they cannot afford them: shelter, food, heating their home, lighting their home, clothing and footwear, basic toiletries” or “their income is so extremely low that they are unable to purchase these essentials for themselves”.

Lacking shelter here means sleeping rough for one or more nights, lacking food is to have eaten less than two meals a day for two or more days, lacking heat or lighting is the inability to heat or light your home for five or more days, lacking clothing and footwear refers to the absence of weather-appropriate items of each, and basic toiletries include soap, shampoo, toothpaste and a toothbrush.

‘Extremely low’ income is defined as a weekly income, after deduction of housing costs, of £70 for a single adult living alone, £95 for a lone parent with one child, £105 for a couple and £145 for a couple with two children, all of whom also possess no or insufficient savings.

In short, “‘destitution’ denotes the circumstances facing people who cannot afford to buy the absolute essentials that we all need to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean”.

To their merit, “the authors recognise that this experience”, ie, that of being destitute, “sits within the much broader context of ‘severe’ and other forms of poverty and hardship that many people across the UK face”. Destitute individuals are the very poorest of all, but there are millions more working-class people who are not very much better off than this rock-bottom strata.

The authors define ‘severe poverty’ as:

“(a) lacking a third of key material essentials or having a housing need of overcrowding, concealed family, unsuitable for family or condition problem and can’t afford to buy a home; and

“(b) having less than 40 percent of the national median net equivalised household income after housing costs; and

“(c) experiencing financial difficulty – having difficulty paying rent, finding one’s current financial situation very difficult or expecting one’s financial position to get more difficult in the future.”

Poverty to any degree is, at this stage of human development and in one of the world’s richest countries, absolutely inexcusable and unjustifiable; an indictment of the prevailing mode of production. But such is the reality of life under capitalism, a system whose laws are an inexorable force that drags the standard of living of the masses lower and lower while wealth concentrates at the opposite pole: in the pockets of the idle exploiters, who grow rich beyond belief on the backs of working-class immiseration.

If capitalism did not behave this way, it would not be capitalism. All attempts to alleviate the poverty and suffering of the masses while leaving the system of production intact are, at best, well-intentioned but futile endeavours. At worst, they are malicious designs aimed at temporarily quelling social unrest so as to preserve this unequal system for the benefit of our rulers. In either case, they ultimately prove abortive.

Scale and distribution

“We estimate that the total number of destitute households in the UK in touch with voluntary sector crisis services (or local welfare funds) in a representative week in 2019 was 191,000,” say the report’s authors. “These households contained 430,000 people, of whom 99,000 were children.”

“The total number of households experiencing destitution in the UK at some point in 2019 and using these services is estimated to be 1,062,000, involving 2,388,000 people, of whom 552,000 were children. On this basis, the number of households experiencing destitution at some point in 2019 is estimated to have increased by 35 percent since 2017, and the number of people and children experiencing destitution has increased by 54 percent and 52 percent respectively.”

Year after year, the grim spectre of destitution looms larger and larger over the British working class as the standard of living for the masses sinks lower and lower.

Furthermore, this study was carried out before the latest financial crash of 2020, which was hastened, exacerbated and, at the same time, covered up by coronavirus crisis, with its national lockdowns and accompanying shutdowns of the economy. When the next study is carried out later this year (assuming the two-year trend that the foundation has followed is maintained), it will no doubt show an even larger increase in levels of destitution, with a corresponding massive increase in poverty in general.

“Of those we identified as destitute,” the report continues, “22 percent met the deprivation criterion only, while 35 percent met the extremely low-income criterion only. That leaves 43 percent of destitute households meeting both the extreme material deprivation and extreme low-income thresholds, up from 35 percent in 2017. In that sense, it might be argued that the degree of destitution intensified in the two-and-a-half years between the two surveys.”

Food was the most commonly lacked essential, with nearly 60 percent of destitute service users experiencing a lack of food driven by their poverty. It was followed by suitable clothing, at around 49 percent, and toiletries, at around 43 percent.

This is all the more absurd when we consider the tonnes of food that are discarded by farmers because they are unable to find a buyer willing to pay a reasonable price, or because the latter has deemed the produce unacceptable for some superficial reason, not to mention the enormous quantity of waste created by supermarkets in the form of food that they are unable to sell.

However insane this seems, it is nonetheless the logic of the market. Any rational society would produce food and allocate it according to the needs of the population, minimising waste and, most of all, ensuring that all are able to eat a healthy diet, clothe themselves adequately and comfortably, keep themselves clean, warm and housed, etc. But, as we all know only too well, capitalism does not act in accordance with human logic.

According to the report, the overwhelming majority, over 80 percent, of those experiencing destitution found themselves with under £100 per week to live on after the deduction of housing costs. Of this number, roughly 32 percent had no income at all, around 44 percent had between £1 and £69 and less than 10 percent received £70-£99.

Shockingly, some 14 percent of the destitute population were employed, while one third of households in severe poverty were found to have at least one member in paid work.

As might be expected, migrants are disproportionately likely to be destitute. In 2019, people born outside the UK accounted for 9 percent of the population, but working age migrants accounted for 23 percent of the destitute population. (Migration Statistics research briefing, House of Commons, December 2020)

Similarly, migrants are also the worst-off in terms when it comes to having absolutely no income at all, accounting for 46 percent of the total number.

“The migrant group (without complex needs) were noticeably worse off in comparison with the other two groups [ie, those with complex needs and those classified as UK-other], in that barely more half (53 percent) received income from benefits.

“At the same time, they were much less likely than the other two groups to receive income from almost any of the other sources listed, with the exception of paid work (reported by about one in eight of all three sub-groups). In fact, more than a third (37 percent) of the migrant destitute population reported having no source of money at all in the previous month, compared with 12 percent for people with complex needs and 7 percent for the UK-other group.”

Nor is it just monetary assistance that migrants are lacking: they “were also the sub-group least likely to receive in-kind support, with a majority (58 percent) reporting receiving no help of this type in the previous month”.

Effects of lockdown

The government’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic, putting the entire country under house arrest for the better part of a year and leaving large numbers without any means of support, has only made matters worse for those facing extreme poverty. While billions have been handed out in ‘covid’ contracts (many of which delivered precisely no benefit to the people), those in the greatest need have in many cases been left to fend for themselves.

Although the 2019 survey was carried out before the start of the pandemic, the report’s authors continued their work during 2020 by “undertaking separate quantitative research (for the Trussell Trust), analysing the likely effects of the Covid-19 crisis on levels of destitution and need for assistance from food banks”.

This research led them to estimate “destitution levels in the UK will approximately double as a result of the pandemic and the associated economic lockdown, even taking into account the mitigating effects of relevant policy measures (such as the enhancement of various welfare protections)”.

“The profile of the destitute population post Covid-19, from early evidence and simulations, appears to differ from the pre-pandemic destitute population in various respects, including a wider geographical spread, more impact on families (especially lone-parent families) and multi-adult households, and increased reach within the private-rented and owner-occupation tenures.”

Universal income

“Half of all destitute households in the autumn 2019 survey were receiving universal credit (UC) or had applied for it, although a fifth were not yet receiving it,” the report states.

In fact, “the general rollout of universal credit, given its design features, and in particular the five-week wait for initial payment, and the progressive effects of freezing benefit rates and caps between 2015 and 2020” were found to be a significant factor in increased levels of destitution.

Recall the figures that define ‘extremely low income’ stated at the beginning of this article: £70 for a single adult living alone, £95 for a lone parent with one child, £105 for a couple and £145 for a couple with two children, possessing no or insufficient savings.

Universal credit provides those who are eligible (and able to jump through the myriad bureaucratic hoops designed to impede access) a paltry £102.47 a week to single adults over the age of 25. A lone parent over 25 with a young child can expect around £161.43 per week; couple, one or both of whom are over 25, are allowed £148.51 per week to share; and an over-25 couple with two young children will receive £266.43 a week in total. (Government information on universal credit)

Bear in mind that while the definition of extremely low income looks at income after deducting housing costs, such costs have to be paid for out of any benefits received from the state. Given how close universal credit limits are to the Rowntree foundation’s definition of ‘extremely low’ income, it is not hard to see how so many in receipt of benefits are being pushed into destitution.

A single adult claiming universal credit, with no other source of income, would need to find accommodation for less than £120 per month to avoid falling into destitution. As anyone familiar with the rental market will readily attest, this is not remotely feasible.

Then there is the five-week waiting period that even successful UC claimants must go through. This, combined with “the associated benefit advance repayment regime, is a core driver of destitution. Especially when combined with shortfalls in benefits to cover housing costs, as a result of the under-occupation penalty and local housing allowance restrictions, this design feature of UC ensnares people in debt from the outset of their claim, from which many then struggle to recover.”

“Rising levels of problem debt/arrears are both a symptom of, and a compounding factor in, destitution.” (Our emphasis)

For those proponents, be they malicious or ill-informed, of a universal basic income (UBI) as the panacea to and fig leaf for capitalism’s inherent inability to make proper use of the productive forces and ensure gainful employment for all, this is the grim future that awaits: working people reduced to a meagre, inhuman existence that renders them unable to access the most basic of necessities, robbed of dignity and denied the ability to develop their potential and contribute their part to economic and social life – an ability that socialist society considers to be the most fundamental of human rights.

A socialist, planned economy does away with this absurd contradiction, engaging all in meaningful work and using the wealth generated for the betterment of those who have created it.

Instead of the idleness that a UBI scheme forces on society, in which life becomes largely pointless, workers’ lives are given meaning and purpose through highly rewarding, socially useful work through which all contribute to the collective wellbeing and enjoy an ever-increasing standard of living. The productive forces of society can be utilised to their full and are free to rapidly increase, unfettered by the chaos of a profit-driven capitalist economy.

By forcing ever larger numbers of people into ever deeper poverty, capitalism is digging its own grave. Humanity will not stand such horrors and indignities indefinitely. There will come a time when the working masses collectively assert themselves as human beings and as the creators of all wealth, to fight as one unstoppable force for their future.

Their endeavours will smash the yolk of wage slavery, and with it will abolish the hideous, shameful blight of destitution.