Six million of the poorest people in the UK would need to more than double their income to climb out of poverty, according to a new report criticising “social failure at scale”.
The poverty gap – the amount of money needed to bring the incomes of those in poverty to the poverty line – has widened, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) warned.
It said 22% of the population (14.4 million people) were in poverty in 2021-22, including 8.1 million working-age adults, 4.2 million children and 2.1 million pensioners.
About two in 10 adults and three in 10 children were in poverty in the UK, JRF added.
The charity said six million people were in very deep poverty in 2021-22 – families below 40% of the median (middle) income after housing costs – 1.5 million more than 20 years ago.
These people would need an additional £12,800 to reach the poverty line, defined as 60% of the median income of the UK.
Giving an example of a couple with two children under 14 living in poverty, JRF suggested the average income for this type of family after housing costs was £21,900 and they would need an extra £6,200 yearly just to reach the poverty line.
In the mid-1990s, the gap was £3,300 after adjusting for inflation.
There are many reasons why people are stuck in poverty – including illnesses or redundancies – but according to the Big Issue, “structural and systemic issues” worsened by increasing living costs create a “cycle that keeps people trapped” in hardship.
JRF showed that poverty rates grew rapidly under Margaret Thatcher’s administration in the 1980s and remained high, with small decreases in following governments.
Its report urged political parties to include an essentials guarantee in Universal Credit, ensuring people always have enough to cover “life essentials like food and energy”.
Former prime minister Gordon Brown recently told Sky News that Universal Credit was “not working” and needed to be addressed after citing families unable to afford fundamental housing appliances and forgoing basic hygiene products like soap and toothpaste due to the cost of living crisis.
The Trussell Trust network, which supports more than 1,300 food bank centres across the UK, had forecast that more than 600,000 people would rely on food banks from December until February this year.
No stigma in baby bank ‘village’
Sky News correspondent Shingi Mararike visited Hartlepool Baby Bank in the North East – a corner of the country where the poverty being described by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation cuts through more than most.
With storerooms packed to the ceilings with boxes full of clothes and other baby items, founder Emilie de Brujin said everything they had stocked was neither “flash nor expensive” but the “essentials” that parents need to take care of their kids.
Socks, underwear, shoes, bibs and sterilisers were kept in one room; in another were “maternity packs” containing basics for every pregnant mum like nappies, cream, bed mats and breast pads.
Ms de Brujin said it was “hard work” to store everything as they couldn’t afford a bigger space and the centre now catered for older children too.
She said when the baby bank started, clothes were limited to 0-2-year-olds but after COVID, clothes extended to their siblings – children up to 12 years of age.
Ms de Brujin also said: “We didn’t want to say [to families] go here for one child, go there for another. No one’s got the time. Poverty is really time-consuming. Families don’t have cars and have to walk in all weathers.”
She added: “Nobody wants to use a baby bank but they have to and we make that as pleasant an experience as we can. All I ask from my volunteers is one thing – a smile.” She described the place as a “village” where no one should feel stigmatised.
The clothes mainly come from donors and are items their children don’t need. “It goes from one child to another which is lovely. We have people knit for us too and we’re lucky as our local community support us so well,” the founder said.
She said that the parents who frequented the baby bank weren’t just those on benefits or affected by immigration.
“We’ve seen parents where one hasn’t recovered job-wise since COVID, or hours have been cut due to business costs… so these are working parents. It’s a whole world scenario where everyone is touched by rising costs at the moment.”
Sky News spoke to one mum with seven children under one roof, and the additional struggles she would otherwise face had it not been for Hartlepool Baby Bank.
Hannah Southwell-Dymock said the centre was “very important” especially as a student where her finances “didn’t stretch at all”.
She says she saves £15 a week from not having to buy nappies – a significant amount given rising bills and necessities.
“We can actually get food”, she said. “If we didn’t have the bank it would be the case of what food we can get and survive off.”
Paul Kissack, JRF group chief executive, confirmed families were spiralling deeper below the poverty line.
He said: “Little wonder that the visceral signs of hardship and destitution are all around us – from rocketing use of foodbanks to growing numbers of homeless families.
“This is social failure at scale.”
Mr Kissack said political parties must set out their plans to “turn back the tide on poverty” as the country approaches a general election.
Consumer champion Martin Lewis said the “stark reality” was that people’s incomes were less than their minimum necessary spend, despite help from money charities.
He said the JRF report must prompt policymakers and regulators to “sit up [and] take note and address these deep-rooted problems”.
A government spokesperson said: “We are continuing to support families with the cost of living backed by £104bn – and there are 1.7 million fewer people living in absolute poverty, including 400,000 children, compared to 2010.
“Children are five times less likely to experience poverty living in a household where all adults work, compared to those in workless households.”
The spokesperson added that taxes have been cut and inflation is being curbed “so hard-working people have more money in their pocket”.