‘It’s not head above water, it’s gone underwater, and no one can afford these astronomical bills,’ says Simon, a hint of desperation in his voice. He, along with millions of others across the country, is grappling with the ever-deepening cost of living crisis.
UK inflation reached a ten-year high last month of 5.1 percent, even as the prime minister insisted in October last year that fears over inflation were ‘unfounded’. Energy bills are tipped to soar by fifty percent in the spring, and incoming tax rises have been coupled with the brutal £20-a-week cut to Universal Credit. Add those things together, and millions of families across the country are facing a squeeze that some have predicted could hit harder than the financial crisis of 2008.
The storm has already started pushing people like Simon into poverty and hardship. ‘I get £645 a month from Universal Credit, and out of that, £560 is my rent in a council flat. When they put the £20 uplift in it went to £745, and I could just about exist on that. I’m used to existing on low income, so the £20 did make a difference.
‘Then they took that away. Since then I’ve got two months built up of rent arrears on my flat, and I’m having to make a discretionary housing benefit claim to see if I can get some of that reduced.’
The Resolution Foundation has warned that UK households face a hit of £1,200 this year as stalling wages and rising bills cause a ‘cost of living catastrophe.’ As Simon continues, ‘The electric has gone through the roof, and this is happening to millions of people. There isn’t much disposable income to talk about. There isn’t any.’
Toward the end of last year, analysts warned about the prospect of a ‘terrifying’ hike in food prices. Simon tells me he’s already started noticing rises in costs at his local shop.
‘I’ve never seen a precipice like this one,’ he says. ‘With the costs that are coming, with the electric and gas going up, and the food going up, it’s worse than the Thatcher years. Then was a different kind of ruination—it was the closing down of all the communities and the jobs, and the vibrancy that went with that. Back in the day, one wage was enough for a family.’
I ask Simon what impact his financial situation has had on his mental health, living month to month while racking up debts. ‘You just keep putting it off, that’s one way to deal with it,’ he answers.
Then he says that last week he had his car window smashed. ‘I can’t afford £150 to fix that. People don’t have those lump sums. I haven’t even got that as income. The phone bill doesn’t get paid, and then I get another twenty-two quid charge from the bank. It’s a vicious cycle. I’ve never known it this bad.’
Simon’s fear is shared by Parveen, a mature student in her final year in university. She tells me that last week she had just £5 to live off as a result of soaring prices and energy bills.
How did she survive? ‘I went and brought lots and lots of tins of sardines,’ she says. ‘I had some oil in the cupboard, and I had half a bag of rice from last year, and I tried to make meals from that £5 best I could. The whole concept of it depressed me. It’s dire.’
Parveen lives alone with her cat in a studio flat in London, and says that towards the end of last year, she was in a situation of ‘severe poverty’. Since then she’s remained on the breadline.
‘Living on my own, as a single person, I had a direct debit set up with my energy company. But I was being charged the equivalent of a three-bedroom property—£80 a month for my gas, £80 for electric. It was extortionate. So I switched to another, and initially that was affordable, but then I noticed there was a rise. They upped the prices, too.’
Parveen’s direct debits were on a variable rate, so some months the bill was £50, and others it was £65. ‘Again, I was questioning it. All I do is basic stuff like cooking.’
In December, after falling behind with her bills, Parveen had her gas turned off by an engineer. She resorted to using an electric heater instead, but keeping that on in the bitter cold cost her £240 a month, meaning she also fell behind with the rent. ‘I can barely afford to survive, just paying the bills and rent and everything else.’
Against the backdrop of the deepening cost of living crisis, Parveen adds that she’s applied for more than one hundred jobs and rarely received a reply—something she in part attributes to discrimination. ‘I’m trying to go into journalism, and I’m expected to work for free,’ she continues. In a glimpse into the attitude of the political class, Parveen reveals that one MP asked her to do a gig in Parliament on a pro bono basis.
Dave, who lives in Luton and works as an outreach officer, has found himself in a similar boat. Unable to afford the cost of heating, he uses the wood from his garden for the fire in his house.
‘I live on about £100 a month, that’s all I got spare,’ he says. ‘I’m a very good cook, so I spend ten quid on groceries. I get five carrier bags full of fresh fruit and veg,’ he continues, but adds that he knows friends who have had to make meals on pennies.
Dave is limited in the jobs he can take, given he’s also a full-time carer for his partner. ‘The worst thing is being dependent on the dole. It’s barely enough to survive on its own.’ The Job Centre is a fair few miles from where Dave lives, meaning to get there he’d have to undertake the journey on foot or pay £7 each way for a taxi—£7 that might be make or break.
‘I get a carer’s allowance, and that’s all I live on,’ he continues. ‘£640 a month. £600 goes on rent, and then there’s whatever’s left over. I just pray that I’m going to get something coming in after that. If I didn’t have my carer’s allowance, I wouldn’t know how I would survive.’
This week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies released a report showing that benefits need to rise considerably to keep up with the cost of living crisis and stop more people falling into poverty. The current planned rise to benefits means the poorest in society are currently facing a three percent cut in their real welfare levels and living standards this year, even before accounting for the Universal Credit cut.
When I ask how Dave’s current situation has affected his wellbeing, he explains that after a heart attack at the age of forty in which stress was a major factor, he does his best not to let it get to him. And he seems buoyed by the prospect of building solidarity with others in similar circumstances: ‘I’ll be doing group cooking. I’ll be feeding people,’ he says. ‘This is dire straits. I’m prepared for people being destitute and hungry and I’m getting my house ready for that. We can’t rely on state support or government.’
Then he adds that he knows three people who have taken their own lives within the last year, and it’s a sharp reminder of the fact that, in the fifth richest economy in the world, millions continue to be forced into a state of unbearable poverty that is also avoidable.
‘I try not to be down about it, because I know people worse than me,’ Dave says. ‘I’ve lived out of skips before.’