What does hunger in the UK look like, and how do we solve it? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation are one of the leading charities researching UK poverty and its solutions. Chris Goulden, JRF’s deputy director of policy and research, answers these questions.

Going hungry is at the heart of what it means to be in poverty, even in 21st Century UK. Research published last year by JRF showed for the first time the full extent and nature of destitution in this country. One of the criteria for being destitute, as agreed by the public, is having had fewer than two meals a day for two or more days in the last month. This is one of six indicators, alongside being unable to afford to keep warm or stay clean and dry, in combination with having an extremely low income. On this measure, in all, 1.25 million people in the UK experienced destitution and were in touch with crisis services at some point during 2015, including 300,000 children. Going without food was the most common deprivation experienced, reported by three in four people in the month before being interviewed.

‘I’ve got to be honest, there were actually days when I wasn’t eating at all.’
Male, aged 44

That’s me down to my last meal. I’ve got a meal for tonight and then I don’t get any more money until Thursday.’
Male, aged 55 (interviewed on Tuesday am)

‘Quite often I was, plain and simple, going hungry, plain and simple.’
Male, aged 46

Destitute parents emphasised that they put their children’s needs ahead of their own, particularly for food, clothing and toiletries.

‘I had to budget and things like that to make sure I had enough money to get what I needed. So, even if it meant that me and my partner had to go hungry for a few nights just to feed our son then that’s what we had to do.’
Female, aged 29

‘I never let my little boy go without food, but I miss at least two meals a day, sometimes three.’
Female, aged 24

The research found that nearly three quarters of people experiencing destitution were single adults and about three fifths were under the age of 35. The most common causes of destitution included unsustainable debt repayments (usually to public authorities), high living costs (especially for housing and energy), and benefit delays and sanctions.

What can and should be done about hunger and people lacking food in the UK?
Crucially, destitution arises in the context of longer-term and severe poverty, itself caused by inadequate incomes and high costs. Action is required on delivery of benefits, getting people into work and earning more, reducing rents, strengthening family and community support, investing in education and skills and ensuring that economic growth benefits all communities.
These form the foundation of the JRF strategy ‘We can solve UK poverty’, published in September 2016. Here, we explored developments in Local Welfare Assistance (LWA), the schemes that have replaced the Social Fund in England. These have moved away from providing loans, with most offering in-kind support (for example provision of furniture) or help with costs (for example through vouchers or referral to assistance from food banks).

Local welfare funds were an important source of in-kind support for many people who experienced destitution at some point in 2015. People can still apply for loans through DWP but only after receiving benefits for six months or more. Guides for good practice on LWA are beginning to be developed, but it is essential that providers use them to assess their practice. Overcoming service fragmentation to create a single point of access for help and support is crucial.

‘Real Time Information’ on earnings in Universal Credit will hopefully smooth people’s transitions between jobs and in and out of work, which is crucial given the flexibility and insecurity of the UK labour market. Delays and errors when people reapply for benefits due to changed circumstances are one of the main reasons people resort to food banks.

Finally, and importantly, the financial penalties of sanctions should be reduced. Removing the whole of a claimant’s JSA payment leaves people destitute and hungry. Alongside this, we recommend that JSA be increased in step with the National Living Wage to preserve the current level of work incentives. Routinely, benefits should rise in line with the cost of essentials. The sanctions regime itself should move to a stepped approach with early warnings built in and clear communication, with improved access to hardship payments. Final sanctions should be less severe and should not result in destitution and families going hungry.

JRF have funded a team from Heriot-Watt University to repeat the study on destitution in 2017, due to be published early in 2018. For more details, contacts chris.goulden@jrf.org.uk or on Twitter @chris_goulden.