Recently we’ve been hearing of people setting timers on their phone so they don’t have their heating on for more than 30 minutes a day.
Food banks appealing for hot water bottles to warm people up. Older people riding the bus to avoid the cold at home. The rising cost of living is putting people in impossible situations that no-one should experience.
The most worrying thing, though, is that we are only in the foothills of the cost of living crisis, with prices set to rise a lot more throughout this year. April is going to be a month of extreme strain. The energy price cap will go up by £693. Council tax will be going up. National Insurance payments will rise. Inflation is projected to reach 8%, while benefits are planned to go up by just 3.1% - a real terms cut to incomes following a decade of cuts to benefits.
The rising cost of living is worrying for all of us. But the pain won’t be spread evenly. If you were already spending nearly all your income on essentials, where do you cut back to manage when the prices go up? For many people the result will be deepening poverty. Our analysis shows that failing to increase benefits in line with inflation will make nine million families receiving benefits £500 worse off and pull 400,000 more people into poverty.
Things were already looking extremely troubling, but the war in Ukraine means that we are now facing down another unthinkable rise in energy prices in October, which we project will mean low income families will be spending £1 in every £5 on energy alone. For some families it will be even higher: lone parents will be spending £1 in every £4 on energy; single adults a shocking £1 in every £2. Spending so much to heat your home isn’t sustainable. Something will have to give.
What can be done? All eyes will be on the chancellor’s Spring Statement this week to announce measures that match the scale of the challenge. It would clearly be the right thing for the chancellor to do to uprate benefits in line with inflation. Anything short of this would be making a threadbare social security system even more inadequate.
Even if support from the chancellor does fall short, this is a time that local authorities should be doing all they can to step up to the challenge and provide vital support.
First, local welfare assistance schemes can be a vital source of support when people face an unexpected expense such as a broken washing machine, and throughout the pandemic the Government have also relied on the schemes to channel additional support to low income households. However, not all local authorities have these schemes and some that do are worryingly threadbare or difficult to access. Local authorities should make sure they are maximising the impact of these schemes, following the advice of Greater Manchester Poverty Action and The Children’s Society including to provide cash grants rather than vouchers or only in-kind support.
Second, local authorities can help people access the support they are entitled to. Enormous numbers of people don’t claim the benefits that they could - over a million families entitled to housing benefit don’t receive it; 300,000 don’t get income support or employment and support allowance. And our research has shown that accessing the right benefits can be the thing that prevents someone from experiencing destitution.
Finally, local authorities shouldn’t be making the situation worse for any families facing hardship. We found that during COVID a third of low income households fell behind on payments for council tax, utility bills or rent. All too often council tax arrears can trigger other problem debt.
Research by Policy In Practice for the Greater London Authority highlights the negative consequences of strict council tax collection policies for residents’ financial resilience and found that such practices did not lead to higher collection rates. Citizens Advice and the Local Government Association have developed protocols for more effective approaches, which councils should adopt.
Although much of the power to protect the most vulnerable from the rising cost of living lies with the chancellor, and is complicated by world events, local government still has an ability to mitigate the effects, and build strong communities based on mutual support and free from destitution.
Dave Innes is head of economics at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation