Families facing ‘heat or eat’ dilemma this Christmas as they struggle to cope with welfare reforms

Release Date: 10-Dec-2013
Families are facing Christmas amid a growing struggle to feed themselves, heat their homes and cope with debt, a study into the impact of the Government’s welfare reform reveals today.
This is the second report in an 18 month study

This is the second report in an 18 month study

More households are now spending less than £20 a week on food, while over half have no money left after paying essential weekly bills, research by Real Life Reform has found[i].

And residents are growing ever-more concerned that the shake-up in housing, council tax and other benefits will affect their health, children’s education, communities and support networks.

In some areas, neighbours are cooking extra food and buying groceries for families and friends in their street who are struggling to cope. One group of mums even split the cost of Sunday lunch and cook in each other’s houses to make sure their children get to eat “some decent food”. However, there is also increasing evidence of isolation and desperation.

The findings are revealed in the second set of results from Real Life Reform – a major study by social landlords of more than 80 households across the North of England.

Ten housing providers have united to investigate how changes to the benefits system and Welfare to Work initiatives are affecting their customers’ health, housing, wellbeing, finances, education and employment prospects.

Interviews conducted in 87 homes during October have revealed:

• The proportion of Real Life Reform households spending less than £20 per week on food has increased from a quarter to a third.

• The number of people having no money left each week once bills have been paid is 51% - increased from 39% in July

• The average spend on food per person per day is £2.10 - down from £3.27

• Households are spending 16% more on gas and electricity.

• The proportion of households having to make debt repayments of more than £40 per week has doubled.

• 83% of households think welfare reform changes will adversely impact on their health and wellbeing.

• There is increasing criticism of support received to help people access employment. Participants who are looking for work or for more hours have made on average 40 applications in 3 months but 70% are not reaching interview stage.

Lisa Pickard, Chief Executive of Leeds and Yorkshire Housing Association (LYHA) and a member of the Real Life Reform steering group, said: “These findings clearly show that welfare reform is having a major impact not just on households but on their families, support networks, neighbours and neighbourhoods.

“Families are sharing the burden and being incredibly resilient at the moment, but many people just have no safety net and are already struggling to survive.

“With the pressure of worsening weather, rising energy costs and Christmas, there is no question that people will face difficult choices – between eating or heating their homes and getting into more debt. This is not right. There will be short- and long-term consequences of these choices and some people are already at breaking point.

“As Real Life Reform continues into 2014, we will be sharing the findings with partners in other sectors, such as health and education; continue to raise awareness among MPs and policy-makers; and use the emerging trends to do all we can to support our customers.”

KNH is one of the housing organisations taking part in the study. According to Chief Executive Simon Rogers, “as was the case with the first report, this makes harrowing reading, but in many respects even more so as people struggle to cope with winter, and fuel bills in particular.

“But what it also does is help challenge the image too often portrayed in certain parts of the media of those reliant on benefits; many featured are working.

“At KNH, we’re trying to strike a balance between ensuring that people are paying their rent and doing what we can to try to lessen the impact of benefits changes on our tenants. There’s no doubt that this will get more challenging over the coming months.”