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Being poor in the UK is an expensive business | Francisco Garcia

Things really began to turn for PJ when his mother died a couple of years ago. He’d been her carer, he explained to me when we spoke in early July, though she’d spent the last few months of her life in a nursing home. After her death, with no money and nowhere to go, the south Londoner rapidly found himself slipping into homelessness.

As he approached his 60th birthday, life was tough. Work was and remains hard to come by and it was difficult to see how or when circumstances might improve. After a month or so, he was rehoused in a north London studio flat. That was around the same time that he started visiting Margins, a drop-in centre based out of Union Chapel, a cultural venue and homelessness charity in Islington. With the help of their support workers, things gradually began to turn. He received help navigating the welfare system and has settled into something like a routine, however fragile.

For millions like PJ, the cost of living crisis didn’t suddenly materialise in 2022. The poor, so it runs, have always been with us, though the last 12 years of Conservative rule has witnessed poverty accelerate sharply across the UK. It’s well understood that this was part of a carefully developed political programme. From 2010, a decade of austerity saw £37bn slashed from the welfare system. Food banks became a shameful fact of life. Wages have continued to stagnate and access to stable, even halfway affordable housing has become increasingly chimerical. The most up-to-date figures show that 13 million people were living in relative poverty in 2020-21, with another seven million living in a state of perpetual “financial fear”, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Fear, that is, of having to choose between which basic need to jettison, on any given week. For 2 million families, it’s not even a choice between food and heating. Instead, they are regularly going without either.

After all, poverty is an expensive business: the less you have, the more things just somehow seem to set you back. It might mean a lack of access to stable credit, or even a bank account. It might mean being forced into predatory loans to make increasingly frayed ends meet, or living in a home with a more costly pre-payment energy meter. It’s the hidden tax costing some of the poorest people an estimated additional £430 a year (in one Birmingham constituency, the gap sits at £541). Some areas are even harder hit. At 15%, the north-east contains the highest proportion of households incurring poverty premiums, with London, Yorkshire and Wales also particularly badly affected.

These are not small sums. As everyday costs continue to detach from reality, pressure has ratcheted up to new extremes. Even the proposed solutions have their own built-in traps and inadequacies. The cost of living payments grudgingly offered to some of the most vulnerable households might be better than nothing, but hardly correspond to the scale of the crisis at hand. The proposed £650 payment is actually split into two payments, with the first due this month (though delays have been mooted) and the second at an unspecified time in the autumn, after another round of energy price hikes.

When I spoke to Union Chapel’s CEO, Michael Chandler, he was keen to explain how the one-off payments, though welcome, weren’t close to being enough. For those like PJ who use their services, it might have been better simply persisting with the £20 universal credit uplift. Cash windfalls can be tough to manage. If budgeting was torturous before, then it is becoming borderline impossible in the current climate. This is doubly true for those with existing debts or substance misuse issues. It’s not difficult to see how the proposed payments will simply be swallowed up on arrival. How are you supposed to plan against the future when ends never quite seem to meet? It’s just another consequence and hidden cost of poverty: the sense of time never quite being your own.

It’s hardly news that life in the UK is becoming untenable, for ever more people. The “safety net”, imperfect as it was, long ago frayed into a trapeze wire. For millions like PJ, poverty and its attendant costs are only ever an accidental single slip away. This was true long before this year and its increasing levels of sheer economic derangement.