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The State of Hunger: the debt crisis facing households at food banks

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This is the third blog in our series looking at the State of Hunger (2021), diving into key themes arising from the landmark study, and looking at their impact in focus. 

As our previous blogs have shown (here and here), people need to turn to food banks when they are forced to live on extremely low incomes. One of the many consequences of this, is the very high level of debt among people needing to turn to food banks. This creates a vicious circle for those individuals and families living on very low incomes who are forced to take on debt to pay for the essentials, with that debt in turn keeping them locked them in poverty.  

It is hard to find someone needing a food bank who is not living in some form of debt. 

On the eve of the pandemic, 90% of households surveyed at food banks were in debt, and a clear majority (60%) of households had both unpaid bills (e.g. electricity or rent) and owed money on loans (e.g. a bank loan, or a loan from friends or family). This puts debt problems well above those for working age adults in the general population (6%) and working age adults in relative poverty (15%). 

The fact that many more people at food banks are in debt compared to people in relative poverty highlights the particularly deep form of poverty which people at food banks are experiencing; almost all people referred to food banks are destitute, meaning they are unable to afford the basics. For certain groups these problems are even more acute. For example, households affected by disability are more likely than other households arriving at food banks to be in debt, to have accrued multiple debts, and for a higher proportion of their income to be swallowed up repaying these debts. This isn’t right. 

During the pandemic, many people have found themselves needing to take on extra debt – this risks a ticking time bomb, particularly since England’s evictions ban ended. 

State of Hunger has shown how the economic impact of Covid-19 has compounded the severity of debt people referred to food banks are facing across the board. In early 2020, a fifth (21%) of people needing to turn to a food bank were in arrears on three or more bills, but this rose to a third (33%) in mid-2020. 

During this time period, rent arrears have remained the most common type of arrears households at food banks have found themselves in, at around four in ten of those surveyed across the last two years. Food banks are likely to increasingly support people with rent arrears, with the Resolution Foundation estimating that the current rates of rent arrears are at least double the pre-Covid-19 ‘norm’.

This makes the ending of the eviction ban in England in June, particularly troubling, and without further financial support this risks pushing many into homelessness and in turn makes them more likely to need to turn to a food bank to get by.  

The most striking change since the pandemic hit has been the dramatic increase in the burden of government debt on people at food banks.

One particularly shocking finding from State of Hunger, was the sharp increase in the share of people at food banks owing money to the Department of Work and Pensions, from 26% in late 2018 to 38% in early 2020 and 47% in mid-2020.  

This debt has been driven by design features of the social security system, particularly the five week wait for a first Universal Credit payment, and the debt generated by taking on an advance payment to cover the wait. With record numbers of people moving onto Universal Credit, there has been a record number of people hit by this form of debt. 

The result is that it is now more common for people arriving at food banks to owe debt to the government than to private lenders or family and friends. This should be raising alarm bells across government and civil society, and prompt a rethink of the five week wait and the approach taken to the repayment of advances in particular. 

The UK Government has the power to lift the burden of debt facing people at food banks. It requires targeted efforts to minimise debts people are forced to take on as part of their benefit claim, and ensuring that people facing destitution are not forced to repay debts they simply cannot afford.  

This is crucial to ensuring we all have a strong enough lifeline when we face hard times, and to move a step closer to ending the need for food banks in the UK. 

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The State of Hunger: We must do more to support people who experience challenging life events, and people without support networks.

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Our previous blog looking at our State of Hunger research identified the design of the social security system as the main reason why people need support from food banks. This research also highlighted background factors that can increase the risk of people needing support. These include people who experience challenging life events (e.g. divorce, ill health, or eviction) or lack local support networks to keep them afloat during a crisis.

The experiences of some people involved in the State of Hunger research are included in this blog. Names have been changed to protect their anonymity.

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The State of Hunger: Now is the time to make sure our social security system is strong enough for all of us when we need a lifeline

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By Tom Weekes, Research Manager

The Trussell Trust is calling for government at all levels to develop a plan for ending the need for food banks. Our State of Hunger research shows that the clearest place to start is ensuring that people have enough income to support themselves. Significant changes to our social security system are needed to ensure we all have a strong enough lifeline when we face hard times.

This blog explores the relationship between social security and need for food banks. The State of Hunger shows consistent evidence that the design of the social security system, and particularly the level of support that people receive is a key reason for why people need support from food banks. From applying to receiving support, the design of the system puts people at risk of hardship.

Applying and receiving benefits can be challenging and pushes people into hardship

Applications for Universal Credit (UC) must be online, a challenging experience for people experiencing destitution with limited digital access. This is compounded by an application process that can often feel arduous and confrontational. For people who have experienced challenging life events, who are disabled, or have mental health problems these may be barriers that cannot be overcome without help and the delay in applying can push people further into hardship.

Some people may not have the option of applying for social security. Many people in the UK live with ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) meaning they cannot receive public financial support. This problem has been particularly exposed during pandemic. In early 2020 2% of people referred to food banks were estimated to have NRPF status, which increased to 11% after March 2020.

Concerns around eligibility are also mirrored for people trying to apply for disability benefits such as Personal Independence Payments (PIP). The lack of support for disabled people, who may have significant additional costs related to their disability but do not meet the demanding criteria for PIP, is a significant driver of need.

If you have overcome these barriers and are able to successfully claim support you face a five week wait for payment, which in practice is often longer. This forces people to choose between experiencing hardship during these weeks or taking on an advance payment which then has to be repaid at a later stage.

The level of support from social security is too low to protect people from hardship

The State of Hunger highlights the very low level of social security payments as a significant driver of need for food banks. Research has shown that the UC standard allowance and other income replacement benefits provide only a third of the income necessary for a minimum socially acceptable standard of living, as measured by the ‘Minimum Income Standard’.

Other benefits are also not sufficient to meet costs. People who are privately renting in receipt of social security receive additional support which is meant to cover their housing costs. However, the report shows that the amount received is often not enough, meaning people have to dig into their subsistence benefits (which are already too low to support a minimum standard) to keep a roof over their heads.

People in receipt of social security often do not receive everything they are entitled to because of deductions from the government

People in receipt of social security often find these limited payments reduced even further.

People who took on an advance payment to tide them over during the wait for UC face long term reductions to the amount of income they receive to pay this back. This is common amongst people needing support from food banks. Between early and mid-2020, the DWP became the most common lender to people referred to food banks in the Trussell Trust network with almost half (47%) saying they owed money to the DWP and 73% of people referred in receipt of UC were repaying an advance.

Other design features reducing support include the ‘bedroom tax’ which reduces the amount of housing support people receive if they are socially renting and have a room in which someone does not permanently reside. 17% of social renters were paying this in early 2020.

Our social security system can keep families afloat. But the evidence from State of Hunger is clear: the flaws in its design mean our social security system is not protecting people from harm, and is instead driving people to food banks.  

As we look to rebuild our society, we need to see the government develop a plan to end the need for food banks. This plan should include:

  1. Ensuring everyone has enough to afford the essentials – starting with keeping the £20 increase to Universal Credit and extending this to legacy benefits, so we can reach all families who need this lifeline.
  2. Ensuring local lifelines are available to get people the right support at the right time – investing in and improving coordination of local support, such as local welfare assistance schemes.
  3. Involving food banks and people with lived experience and adopting a cross-government approach.
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What’s happening at food banks as restrictions lift?

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By Lynda Battarbee, Director of Operations

Since the start of the pandemic, food banks have been incredibly busy: dramatically changing the way support is given so it’s safe and secure for all involved – including staff, volunteers, and people using the food bank; providing 2.5 million emergency parcels to people; supporting with vital research throughout the pandemic; and coming together to call for long-term change to address the issues driving food bank use.

Food banks have provided phenomenal support in their local communities during the pandemic and local people have rallied around them, providing essential food, financial donations, and volunteer support to ensure food banks could continue offering vital services to people in crisis. That support has been invaluable, and we should be encouraged by the way people have pulled together.

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The inspiring stories of food bank volunteers

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We are always blown away by the incredible commitment of food bank volunteers. Faced with a year of change, face masks, and social distancing, the 28,000+ volunteers across the network have shown amazing resilience over the past year, adjusting to new ways of operating, moving to remote support, and processing unprecedented levels of donations and demand. Every day we are both inspired and humbled by the difference volunteers make, giving their time and expertise for free to help make us the best we can be.

As part of Volunteers’ Week, we’ve asked volunteers to share their stories and let us know what being a food bank volunteer means to them. Here’s what they told us:

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Scottish Tech Army: celebrating volunteer partnerships

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As a charity, we hugely value the time, skils, and experience provided by the network’s 28,000 food bank volunteers. As part of our commitment to them, we launched a project in March 2020 to provide all of the food banks in the Trussell Trust network with access to Assemble, a volunteer management system. Assemble is a comprehensive volunteering system focused on empowering and supporting volunteers, streamlining processes, and celebrating the impact and contribution made by both individuals and teams.

We’re delighted to now have over 100 food banks up and running on Assemble, something we couldn’t have done without the support of the Scottish Tech Army.

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Amazing fundraising in Aylesbury

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By Susan, Aylesbury

When the pandemic hit last year, I realised so many people were going through hardship and couldn’t afford the basics, such as food. So, I started thinking how I could help and do my bit for the community.

People contribute and support food banks in any way they can: some hold coffee mornings to raise money while others might make cakes. I love gardening and I have a big garden with lots of plants, so I thought why not share them with other people to support a good cause? In April 2020 I set up a stall outside my house and started selling my plants. The idea turned out to be a success and it was really appreciated by passers-by: it raised £700 for Aylesbury Foodbank.

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The State of Hunger  – a foundation for a plan to end the need for food banks

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By Tom Weekes, Research Manager

Yesterday the Trussell Trust released the second State of Hunger report, a comprehensive study of the scale and drivers of hunger in the UK. The report was launched at the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Ending the Need for Food Banks as part of a wide-ranging discussion of food bank use and destitution, including how to tackle the key drivers of both. The insight provided by the report provides the first step in developing a plan to ensure no one has to be forced to use a food bank.

The cross-party group heard from panellists including Crossbench Peer and former government advisor on social policy Dame Louise Casey, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Helen Barnard, the Trussell Trust’s Emma Revie, and Conservative Peer and Chief Executive of the Legatum Institute Baroness Stroud.

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A nationwide writing challenge for kids!

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In the UK right now, more people than ever are facing extreme poverty, unable to afford the basics or put food on the table. Last year, food banks in our network gave out more than 2.5 million emergency food parcels to people in crisis – and almost a million of these were provided for children.

This simply isn’t right, but we know that together we can make change happen. More than 100,000 people have already signed up for our Hunger Free Future campaign, standing alongside us and people forced to use food banks to call for change. Will you join us?

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To reach a UK without the need for food banks, we must address structural racism

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Marcia Bluck, director of diversity and inclusion 

I want to start with a disclaimer – I’m not a victim. I create my own seat at the table. But we need to acknowledge why that can be harder for some to do than others 

Last month, the Commission on Race & Ethnic Disparities’ report was published, arguing that the term ‘institutional racism’ is overused, and that while impediments and disparities do exist for people from ethnic minority backgrounds, ‘very few of them are directly to do with racism’.  

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