A disabled single parent who got pushed through a windowpane as a child and lost movement in both arms is just one of millions of Brits stuck in poverty despite being in work.
Single mum Sarah Whitehead, from Salford, had a lifetime Disability Living Allowance award cancelled when the government reformed the benefits system, and faced reassessment for the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP).
“Having seen all the reports in the papers about people with cancer, with severe disabilities and really serious diseases who had been told they were fit to work, I decided not to get reassessed,” she told HuffPost UK.
“I just didn’t want to face it. It’s not just the stress and anxiety of making ends meet – it’s how they make you feel when you’re there.”
She added: “But because of that, I lost all the extra support I got with housing costs and council tax, which means I’m now behind on my bill payments. As soon as I get paid for the last three months of work I did, I’ll put that straight into clearing my debts.”
Sarah is self-employed and works with charities as a community engagement consultant. She lives with her 12-year-old son.
“I can’t really apply for Universal Credit, either, because my income isn’t the same from one month to the next, and that isn’t taken into account,” she said.
“The system just isn’t fit for purpose. 100% of the people I know don’t have any savings at all to fall back on – there’s nothing in the bank.
“Unless the government does something to change things now, even more people are going to end up in poverty and that’s not something I want to see.”
Like Sarah, more than half of people in poverty in the UK are not unemployed but rather part of working families, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed on Friday.
Poorly-paid jobs offering too few hours, soaring rent costs and benefits issues are among the reasons many are failing to make ends meet, with 14m people struggling daily. Of those, 56% live in a households where at least one person is employed – compared to 39% two decades ago.
The foundation’s state of the nation report on poverty, released on Friday, also shows hardship has risen for both children and pensioners in the last five years.
It blames the 15-year lack of a “sustained period where all the four main drivers of poverty – jobs, earnings, benefit rates and rents – have gone in the right direction”.
“At the beginning of that 15-year period, rents started rising, then during the Great Recession employment levels and earnings fell. Following that, benefit increases have lagged behind both prices and average incomes,” the organisation said.
Its data is based on a “poverty indicator”, defined as being when a family has an income that is less than 60% of the median for their family type after housing costs.
Working single parents have been swept into poverty fastest, with three-in-10 now struggling to stay afloat, compared to two-in-10 a decade ago.
The Trussell Trust, which runs food bank networks across the country, says the five-week wait to receive initial Universal Credit payments is partly to blame – something ministers have been repeatedly asked to scrap.
Chief executive Emma Revie said: “The findings from JRF’s report today could not be clearer: for too many people it’s becoming harder and harder to keep their heads above water.”
She added: “We need to start putting money back into the pockets of people who most need support, by ending the five week wait for Universal Credit; ensuring benefit payments cover the cost of living; and investing in local emergency support for people in crisis.
“As a country, we can’t shy away from the changes that would make a real difference to pull people out of poverty and ultimately, end the need for food banks in the UK. It’s in our power to make a change.”
JRF’s figures show regional differences, with poverty rates higher in London, the north of England, the midlands and Wales, and lowest in the south (excluding London), Scotland and Northern Ireland. Availability of good quality jobs and housing costs are among the major factors at play, as well as a household being home to a disabled person or a carer.
Those who work in hospitality or retail, and those who live in rented housing, are also more like to be on the breadline.
Lone parents contacted by JRF reportedly talked about “dehumanising” work, feeling trapped “in a never-ending circle” by the benefits system, and being “stuck” in unaffordable or insecure housing.
Their situation is worsened by the cost and availability of transport and childcare, the organisation claims.
JRF executive director Claire Ainsley said Boris Johnson’s government has a “historic opportunity” to change lives with a better deal for working families.
“That better deal needs to encompass the basics we all need – from building new homes to funding social security and bringing better jobs to all parts of the country.” she added.
“If the next decade is to see true levelling up it will be because we have broken the grip of poverty and unlocked the UK’s potential, not because we invested in eye-catching schemes. As a nation, we have made progress before, and we can and must do so again with this new government and a new settlement after Brexit.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “Tackling poverty will always be a priority for this government. We know that getting into work is the best route out of poverty and there are more people in work than ever before. Wages are outstripping inflation and absolute poverty is lower than in 2010.
“We know that some need more help, which is why we spend over £95 billion a year on working-age benefits. Millions will see their benefit payments rise further from April and we’re also boosting the incomes of pensioners each year through the triple lock.”