Heat or eat?
Patrick Butler’s recent Guardian article, drawing on testimonies of people in Liverpool forced to choose whether to go without meals or heating, is extraordinary. No doubt the stories are true in themselves – but aren’t they actually rather extreme, a sign of Liverpool’s special plight, rather than indicative of how things now are more generally?
The answer, on the basis of data we have drawn upon in our forthcoming Monitoring poverty and social exclusion report, is ‘no’.
The evidence takes the form of a graph which shows the value of means-tested social security benefits set against the various items of expenditure that go to make up the minimum income standard (MIS). The MIS is what is considered to be the minimum acceptable standard of living in Britain today – there’s much more detail on how these numbers are calculated here.
For single adults, that benefit – income support, jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance – now covers no more than what the general public believes to be the socially acceptable minimum for food, fuel and water rates. Clothing, household goods and travel, never mind the minimum necessary for any social activity, are now beyond that budget.
We’ve adapted that analysis below to look at different family types. The MIS breaks down the total into different categories, from food and fuel to household goods and social participation. The MIS itself does not prioritise one category over another – all are essential for a minimum standard of living. But given that for working age families, out of work benefits come nowhere near this total, some categories can only be afforded in full by forgoing others completely.
In the example below, we have food, fuel and water as the highest priority, and household goods, social interaction and alcohol as the lowest. Essentially this prioritises short term needs over longer term ones. If some of the household goods need replacing - if the cooker breaks, for instance - then the choice of how to spend money becomes more difficult still. In reality, people may prioritise differently - they may go without some food to afford some transport or some clothing. That would, though, mean not being able to afford the minimum amount of food.
By clicking the tabs across the top, you can see which items can be covered by means tested benefits for different family types. Those in the left column are affordable, but only if the family goes without the items on the right.
So how come in Liverpool it is food or fuel rather than food and fuel? What our report shows is that people can still afford both so long as all of the benefit is available for these necessities. But the bedroom tax, council tax (following the demise of 100% council tax benefit), rent no longer met in full by housing benefit, and of course any debts that to be paid (or even serviced) – with these coming out of the £71.70 a week that a single adult gets in benefit then of course it is ‘eat or’ rather than ‘eat and’.
Grim though the message of our graph is, Butler’s stories are a reminder that it is actually depicting the most favourable of circumstances in which someone reliant on benefits now finds themselves in, not the worst. If this is something that the stories show about the statistics, what our statistics show about the stories is that they are not exceptional but typical. Liverpool differs in having has many more people in this situation than most other places but the situation itself is exactly the same.
Unfortunately, this interactive graph cannot be viewed in older versions of Internet Explorer (IE 8 and earlier). You can download a newer version here . Google Chrome, Firefox and Safari also work fine.