Things really started to come back for PJ when his mother died a few years ago. He had been her carer, he explained to me when we spoke in early July, although she had spent the last months of her life in a nursing home. After her death, with no money and nowhere to go, the south Londoner quickly found herself slipping into homelessness.
As he approached his 60th birthday, life was hard. The work was and remains difficult to accomplish, and it was difficult to see how and when circumstances could improve. After a month or so, he moved into a studio apartment in north London. This was around the same time he started visiting Margins, a center based at Union Chapel, a cultural venue and charity for the homeless in Islington. With the help of their support workers, things gradually began to change. He got help navigating the welfare system and has settled into something of a routine, however fragile.
For millions of people like PJ, the cost of living crisis did not suddenly materialize in 2022. The poor, so it goes, have always been with us, although the last 12 years of Tory rule has seen a sharp rise in poverty in the whole of the United Kingdom. It is well understood that this was part of a carefully developed political program. From 2010, a decade of austerity saw £37 billion cut from the welfare system. Food banks became an embarrassing fact of life. Wages have continued to stagnate and access to stable, even semi-affordable housing has become increasingly elusive. The most up-to-date figures show that 13 million people were living in relative poverty in 2020-2021, with another seven million living in a state of permanent “financial fear”, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Fear, that is, of having to choose between the basic need to give up, on any given week. For 2 million families, it is not even a choice between food and heating. Instead, they regularly go without either.
After all, poverty is an expensive business: the less you have, the more things seem to hold you back in some way. It could mean a lack of access to stable credit, or even a bank account. It could mean being forced to take out predatory loans to meet increasingly broken goals, or living in a house with a more expensive prepaid energy meter. It’s the hidden tax that costs some of the poorest people an extra £430 a year (in one Birmingham constituency, the gap stands at £541). Some areas are even harder hit. At 15%, the North East contains the highest proportion of households experiencing poverty premiums, with London, Yorkshire and Wales also particularly badly affected.
These are not small amounts. As day-to-day costs continue to become detached from reality, the pressure has increased to new extremes. Even the proposed solutions have their own built-in pitfalls and shortcomings. The cost-of-living payments reluctantly offered to some of the most vulnerable families may be better than nothing, but they 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 (although delays have been mooted) and the second at an unspecified time in the autumn, following another round of energy price rises.
When I spoke with Union Chapel CEO Michael Chandler, he was keen to explain how the one-time payments, while welcome, were nowhere near enough. For those like PJ who use their services, it might have been better to just get on with the £20 universal credit increase. A sudden influx of cash can be difficult to manage. If budgeting was excruciating before, it is becoming borderline impossible in the current climate. This is doubly true for those with existing debt or substance abuse issues. It is not difficult to see how the proposed payments will simply be swallowed upon arrival. How are you supposed to plan against the future when the ends never seem to meet? It’s just another consequence and hidden cost of poverty: the sense of time that’s never quite yours.
It is hardly news that life in the UK is becoming unsustainable, for more and more people. The “safety net”, imperfect as it was, long ago eroded to a trapeze wire. For millions like PJ, poverty and its attendant costs are just a single accidental slip. That was true long before this year and its rising levels of utter economic disorder.