Soul-searching questions

The recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation ‘Destitution in the UK 2023’ makes for a shocking read. In the last year alone some 3.8 million people experienced destitution, of whom around a million were children. This means they were not able to afford to meet their most basic physical needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed. The report uses the term ‘accelerating destitution’, claiming this level of poverty is no longer a rare occurrence in the UK. Taking a longer-term view, between 2017 and 2022 the overall number of households experiencing destitution more than doubled.

Some might be shocked by the stories of people’s lived experienced included in the report. But many will already have been desensitised to them by the years of reporting of increasingly desperate poverty.

Instead, what impresses is the robustness and integrity of the research, particularly in ensuring it remains laser-focused and does not drift into discussions of wider poverty issues in the UK. As such, the research definition of destitution is precise and water-tight, linked to both income and the financial ability to meet the six basic needs (food, shelter, heating, electricity, clothing and basic toiletries). It excludes people who have any savings. It benchmarks the income threshold against the actual spend on the essentials of the poorest 10% of the population. Here ‘destitution’ is not a slogan – it is truly the most dire of circumstances. And the conclusions are damning. As a food-focused organisation we could draw attention to the fact that of the 6 essential needs food remained the greatest lack – but it did so by such small margin it barely deserves a mention.

The 100-page report overwhelms with bar charts, statistics and quotes. It’s a 100-page vivisection of human suffering. 100-pages documenting the consequences of deliberately neglectful – and at times hostile – policies of the state.

But one also wonders how many more pages need to be devoted to this issue. One wonders if we are in fact studying the right subject at all; whether instead of studying destitute households we should in fact be studying the rest of our society.

Because truly, what is wrong with us? Why are we not flooding the streets in protest, the way we do urging action on climate? Why are we not storming the ballot boxes to demand change? Why do we continue to elect into office politicians who support these shameful policies – or those who have no desire to change them? These are the questions we should really be studying. These are questions worthy of serious soul-searching.

Tens of thousands of people across the country are pouring their energy into patching up the broken system – in food banks, warm banks, clothing banks – and burning out in the process, since witnessing this level of hardship takes its own kind of toll. And all of us know, deep down, that our work is not and will never be enough. The real change – that change will have to be political.

You can see that by looking at the politics of the different administrations. Destitution levels Scotland are below the GB average, having experienced by far the lowest increase since 2019. The report notes that ‘this may be indicative of the growing divergence in welfare benefits policies in Scotland, notably the introduction of the Scottish Child Payment’. But even in Scotland there is more to do more: destitution levels are nonetheless rising; Glasgow ranks 26th local authority in the UK in terms of predicted destitution rates.

So, what more do we need? Firstly, we need an essentials guarantee. We could model it on ‘guaranteed minimum resources’ enshrined in German law which ensure persons entitled to benefits are able to live with dignity and to participate in society. We also need an ambitious investment in social infrastructure. We could take inspiration from our own history, from the founding of the NHS to public diners. But the most importantly we need to reimagine and renegotiate our social contract, and the degree to which as citizens we get to shape the policies that in turn shape our lives and societies. We must not forget that a better – much better – society is possible and achievable. And demand – or become – the politicians who can rise to the occasion.