Cost of living payments offer short-term respite, but we need an Essentials Guarantee

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A volunteer reaches up for a box on a shelf. The shelf is full of boxes of cereal.

By Helen Barnard – Director of Policy, Research and Impact

From this week, many people receiving social security benefits such as Universal Credit will receive a one-off cost of living payment from the government. This will provide welcome relief, but only for a short period.

People are forced to turn to food banks because their incomes are just too low to cover the essentials we all need to survive. Nearly six in 10 people on Universal Credit can’t afford to eat properly, most are having to go without other essentials, and many are also behind with bills and seeing debt pile up with no way to pay it.

These one-off payments provide a respite, but it is short-lived. They do not fix the underlying factors driving so many people to turn to food banks. Each time a cost of living payment goes out, we see a dip in the need for food banks. When the last payment went out in November, we saw a 15% dip in the numbers of emergency food parcels we had to provide, compared to the level we would otherwise have expected. However, as was the case with the previous payments, over the next three weeks we saw the need shoot up again.

Impact of November 2023 cost of living payment on number of emergency food parcels provided

Line graph showing a dip in the number of food parcels provided following the November 2023 cost of living payment, followed by a rise.

This year has so far been the most difficult our network has ever seen. Trussell Trust food banks distributed 1.5 million parcels between April and September 2023, a 16% increase compared to the same period in 2022. Food banks are at breaking point.

The single biggest driver of this rising need is the fundamental inadequacy of our social security system. Social security should be there when any of us face hard times, but right now levels of payments are too low even to protect people from hunger. One-off cost of living payments help some people to better afford food and other essentials for a short time, or to pay some of their bills or reduce their debt. But these payments cannot make up for an income that is just too low to get by, month after month.

The rising tide of hunger, hardship and debt is damaging our nation’s health, holding back our economy and devastating communities. That’s unacceptable and it’s unnecessary. We know how to turn back this tide. The most important step the government should take is introducing an Essentials Guarantee – legislation to ensure that the basic rate of Universal Credit at least covers the cost of essentials.

Better social security is the foundation on which we can build a society where no one needs a food bank because they can’t afford the essentials. Building on that foundation, we can expand opportunities and enable people to thrive – with more secure and accessible jobs; healthy and affordable homes; and services that support people before they ever reach the point of needing to turn to a food bank.

Join us by signing our petition calling for an Essentials Guarantee