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Social Justice

Families on universal credit going hungry even before £20-per-week cut

The government is set to cut universal credit but academics have warned its not generous enough as it is, and called for an increase to all income-related benefits.

Around half of people claiming universal credit faced food insecurity even after the government boosted payments by £80 per month, according to new research.

Experts have again warned ministers that by cutting the £20 uplift in universal credit they are pulling a vital lifeline for families below the breadline.

A huge proportion of people on the benefit were struggling to afford varied, filling food because of their low incomes, a study showed, with nearly 30 per cent of people having to skip meals and cut back on how much they eat.

There was no recorded rise in food insecurity for people on universal credit during the pandemic, researchers said. But this compared to “sharply rising” food struggles among people claiming legacy benefits – who did not receive any extra cash in lockdown – suggesting the £20-per-week universal credit increase, set to be scrapped this week, helped families stay afloat.

“Many people who already reduce how much they eat because of a lack of money will find themselves even worse off,” said Dr Ben Baumberg Geiger, lead author on the report and reader at the University of Kent.

“Yet even if the [universal credit] uplift was kept, it would be a sticking plaster on a broader problem. Benefit levels are too low to consistently keep claimants out of food insecurity.

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“Put simply, to avoid widespread food insecurity among claimants, all work and income-related benefits need to be made more generous.”

Last week the government announced a £500m household support fund, to be distributed by local authorities to households in need. But the scheme cannot make up for the loss of £20 per week, the academic said. “It’s a simple matter of maths.”

The number of people claiming universal credit is still well above pre-pandemic levels at around 5.5 million.

The study by Welfare at a (Social) Distance – a research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council – drew on findings from a survey of more than 6,300 people claiming benefits between May and June this year.

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The government must scrap policies with well-documented links to food insecurity – such as the benefit cap and five-week wait for a first universal credit payment – if it is serious about improving people’s living standards, the researchers said.

People in debt to the Department for Work and Pensions after, for example, being paid more in benefits than the government said they were entitled to, were more likely to face food insecurity as deductions were taken off their state support.

Disabled people – many of whom are on legacy benefits such as income support and employment and support allowance – were also significantly more likely to have their diet choices limited by a lack of money.

But even after removing those repaying government debts from the data, more than half of benefit claimants repaid other kinds of debt in the last month.

“Inescapable debt repayments reduce the amount that people have to live on, and need to be taken into account in poverty measures,” said Dr Lisa Scullion, joint project lead from the University of Salford.

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A government spokesperson said: “We’ve always been clear that the uplift to universal credit and the furlough scheme were temporary.

“They were designed to help claimants through the economic shock and financial disruption of the toughest stages of the pandemic, and they have done so.

“Universal credit will continue to provide vital support for those both in and out of work and it’s right that the government should focus on our Plan for Jobs, supporting people back into work and supporting those already employed to progress and earn more.”

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