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Universal Credit linked to increased food bank use

A report by the Trussell Trust has found a link between Universal Credit and the number of people visiting food banks. 

#5weekstoolong: Why We Need To End The Wait For Universal Credit found that, in areas where the new benefits system has been rolled out for at least a year, food banks in the Trussell Trust’s network have seen a 30% increase in demand.

While in areas where the system has been in place for at least 18 months the demand has jumped to 40%, and 48% in areas where Universal Credit has been in effect for at least two years.

The charity cited the wait between application and first payment, which is often five weeks or longer, as the main cause of the demand. And said that government loans, which are currently offered during the wait, are also pushing more people into debt.

One of those pushed into debt was Mike, who had to resign from his work as a support worker to care for his mother who was diagnosed with a long-term disease. During this time he had to claim Universal Credit and found that he could no longer manage to pay his rent after he took an Advance Payment. He said:

‘It’s made me go from being a confident lad who loved working with vulnerable people to ending up needing the support I used to offer others.

‘Now I’m unable to support them or myself.’

Now, The Trussell Trust’s chief executive Emma Revie is calling on the Department of Work and Pensions to end the five-week wait. She said:

‘Universal Credit should be there to anchor any of us against the tides of poverty.  But the five-week wait fatally undermines this principle, pushing people into debt, homelessness and destitution.

‘In a society that believes in justice and compassion, this isn’t right. But it is something that can be fixed. Universal Credit was designed to have a wait. Now it’s clear that wait is five weeks too long, and we must change that design.

‘The recent spending review was a lost opportunity to protect people on the lowest incomes. Our Prime Minister must take action to end this wait, and help prevent thousands more of us being swept away by poverty. With the nation at a crossroads, now is the time to loosen the grip of poverty and make sure Universal Credit is able to protect people from needing a food bank, instead of pushing them to one.’

Social housing and homelessness service provider, Riverside Group, also commissioned a report which uncovered a similar pattern of financial hardship in areas where Universal Credit has rolled out.

It found that, on average, people claiming Universal Credit in July 2019 had experienced a 42% increase in rent arrears since the rollout began in 2015. While those claiming Housing Benefit (the previous ‘legacy’ benefits system) experienced a 20% decrease. Hugh Owen, director of strategy and public affairs at Riverside said:

‘Riverside is calling on the government to end the five-week wait for Universal Credit because increasing numbers of our tenants are experiencing hardship while waiting for their first payment. Our data clearly shows that the wait is causing many of our tenants to get into rent arrears which can take months or even years to clear.

‘A recent survey of many of our tenants told us that they are struggling to keep afloat when they move onto Universal Credit; the long wait means that many people are going without food or heating and they are forced to use food banks in order to feed their families. We welcome the simplicity that moving to an integrated benefit is intended to bring, but the way Universal Credit is being implemented means that instead of acting as a safety net, it is dragging people into debt.’

The #5WeeksTooLong study also revealed the detrimental impact the wait is having on people’s mental health. Many people reported experiencing high levels of anxiety, especially as they did not know how much they would receive and when, and some even reported feeling suicidal.

Through the #5WeeksTooLong campaign the Trussell Trust is united with 45 other organisations and more than 14,000 individuals, in urging the government to end the five-week wait now.

Photo Credit – The Trussell Trust

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