Background: There is a widespread perception that destitution is increasing sharply in the UK. Media attention devoted to the prevalence of extreme hardship, and to the increased use of food banks in particular, is indicative of increasing public concern. Prominent public figures have made connections between destitution and government policies on immigration and asylum, welfare reform, homelessness, and exploitation and forced labour. Yet quantitative evidence on the causes, scale, trends and distribution of destitution in the UK is difficult to come by, as is data on the characteristics of those affected and the impact that this experience has on them.
Moreover, what exactly is meant by the term ‘destitution’ in the contemporary UK context is open to wide interpretation. It seems unarguable that destitution is related to severe income poverty and material deprivation. However, the extent to which it should be interpreted as involving a threat to basic physiological functioning – being able to physically survive – is unclear. Destitution, however defined, should certainly be viewed as the lowest end of a spectrum of material hardship that also includes people living in poverty, including its more severe forms, but not actually destitute.
The aims of this study are to answer the following questions:
- How should ‘destitution’ be defined in the contemporary UK context?
- How much destitution is there in the UK?
- Who is affected by it?
- How has this changed over time?
- What are the main drivers of rising/falling/changing patterns of destitution?
- What are the main pathways into and out of destitution? What are the experiences and impacts of destitution for the people directly affected?
- How should public policy respond to destitution?
Definition of destitution 1. People are destitute if they, or their children, have lacked two or more of these six essentials over the past month, because they cannot afford them:
- shelter (have slept rough for one or more nights);
- food (have had fewer than two meals a day for two or more days);
- heating their home (have been unable to do this for five or more days);
- lighting their home (have been unable to do this for five or more days);
- clothing and footwear (appropriate for weather);
- basic toiletries (soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush).
To check that the reason for going without these essential items is that they cannot afford them we will: ask respondents if this is the reason; check that their income is below the standard relative poverty line (i.e. 60 per cent of median income after housing costs for the relevant household size); and check that they have no or negligible savings. 2. People are also destitute, even if have not as yet gone without these six essentials, if their income is so low that they are unable to purchase these essentials for themselves. The relevant weekly income thresholds, after housing costs, are £70 for a single adult, £90 for a lone parent with one child, £100 for a couple, and £140 for a couple with two children. We will also check that they have insufficient savings to make up for the income shortfall.