The Money Advice & Benefits team here at VIVID often works with customers who are trying to manage on an extremely limited budget – we make sure that they are getting all benefits that they are entitled to and advise them about social tariffs for broadband and water to reduce their bills. We are also working with local pantries and have paid the first 4 weeks’ membership for some of our customers. But - how would you manage to live on just £368.74 a month? This is the standard allowance paid to single people on Universal Credit, not including money for housing costs. Research conducted by the Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggest that this figure should be £520 per month.
The massive increase in utility costs in the last year has had a real impact on people’s ability to manage – and keep warm. The standing charges alone amount to about £25 per month. In this example of a single person on basic UC, once gas (£53), electric (£63), and water (£18) bills have been accounted for (obviously everyone’s usage is different) this probably leaves about £235 for the month to pay for everything else, including food – which we estimate at the very minimum to be about £175 a month.
We all know how much food has gone up since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We have drawn up a sample basic menu for a single person, and the cost of this has increased substantially, hence the widely reported rise in foodbank use and the growth in pantries. After the food has been budgeted for, this leaves £60 to pay for travel, TV licence, broadband, mobile phone, toiletries, clothes and shoes, possibly council tax (depending on the local authority), gifts for family occasions, and entertainment. And what about those people under 25 whose basic UC before housing costs is £292.11 a month?
But this isn’t really the full picture. Many customers also have significant deductions from their basic UC entitlement. They could be subject to the bedroom tax or have historic housing benefit or tax credit overpayments that are being recouped direct from their UC. They might have taken an advance at the beginning of their claim and be paying it back, or a budgeting loan to pay for emergencies. They probably also have council tax or rent arrears that they need to make payments towards. How would you juggle these competing priorities? Before 2017 people who were found to have a Limited Capability for Work due to illness or disability would be entitled to an additional £146 per month in recognition of their additional needs, but now only those continually entitled since the change continue to get this much needed extra money.
In cases such as this, we very often can’t give customers advice on how they can budget to improve their circumstances – they have already cut everything to the bone.
What we can do is give them advice on getting a Debt Relief Order or becoming bankrupt so they at least can get rid of their debts. Ironically, they can’t usually afford to do this because they can’t save enough money to pay the fees (£90 for a DRO, £680 for bankruptcy). We can help customers to pay this through our welfare fund. We can also use our welfare fund to pay for white goods, carpets and furniture packages for customers on a limited income. At VIVID, we increased our welfare fund a couple of years ago by a further £100k in recognition of how tough it was for those struggling the most.
The poverty that people in these circumstances are facing is one of the reasons why we are supporting the call for the Essentials Guarantee, a proposal arising from a report produced by the Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation (https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/guarantee-our-essentials). The Essentials Guarantee would embed in our social security system the widely supported principle that, at a minimum, Universal Credit should protect people from going without essentials.