Who are the UK’s 1.25 million destitute people?

Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s landmark report on UK destitution gives further weight to the experiences of people we see in foodbanks every day.

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“I can’t remember the last time we had a square meal as a family. I’ll make something for the kids and pretend I’m eating later, because I don’t want them to know I go without so they don’t have to. It’s hard to get even basic food. It’s making a decision between that and something else – do you put that £5 in the electric or gas because it’ll be freezing otherwise, or put it into food so the kids can eat?”

For Anna, juggling the care of her severely autistic son and dealing with depression after escaping an abusive relationship is a daily struggle. And it’s made so much worse because she has little to live on. She is just one of thousands of people who have been referred to a foodbank in the last year, and when she arrived and sat down with a cup of tea to talk to the volunteers, it became clear food wasn’t the only thing she was struggling to afford. 

And Anna’s not the only one who knows what it’s like to be living beyond the edge.

Today sees the publication of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s latest Destitution Report. It reports that in 2015 1.25 million people like Anna were unable to afford the absolute essentials needed to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean.  This is 1.25 million people living in the UK; four in five of them born here.

Although JRF’s report looks more broadly at destitution beyond food insecurity, JRF’s study, released just over a week after The Trussell Trust published its annual statistics on foodbank use, reflects what foodbanks in our network see on the ground every day across the UK. 

In 2015-16, Trussell Trust foodbanks provided 1,109,309 three day emergency food supplies, 415,866 of which went to children. The similarity between our figures and JRF’s calculation that 1.25 million individual people, 312,000 of whom were children, were destitute for at least one week in the last year is striking. It is also deeply troubling.

JRF report that whilst the most common deprivation people experienced was going without food, this was closely followed by struggling to afford other essentials too. Every day, foodbanks meet people who find these basics too expensive: people like Fiona, who was using newspaper instead of sanitary towels because she couldn’t afford any other alternative; Oliver, who was sitting in the dark when the foodbank arrived to drop off an emergency parcel because he was trying to save electricity; and Diane, who cried when the foodbank offered her shampoo because she would feel clean at her job interview. 

In each of these situations, the foodbank was able to go beyond giving emergency food and offer something more. Trussell Trust foodbanks increasingly offer additional items and services, like toiletries and period products, fuel vouchers for gas and electric pre-payment meter top ups, clothing and school uniform.

The Destitution Report is an important step towards understanding the severe impact of poverty in the UK, but we could do much more to identify the scale of the problem and to progress in tackling it. World renowned economist, Partha Dasgupta studied destitution to better understand social health and well-being. That, he said, was key to working out what to do about it. Regular, official, measurement of the number of people going hungry and unable to afford basic essentials fundamental to human dignity, is something many other countries, including Canada, America and New Zealand already do.  Let’s use this report as a launchpad for a proactive effort by government, experts and front line charities to build an official measure of hunger and poverty in the UK. It’s vital we do so to ensure fewer people like Anna, Fiona, Oliver and Diane end up needing a foodbank because they can’t afford the basics.

Chris Mould, Chairman of The Trussell Trust