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“We’re barely surviving”: Struggling families sink deeper into debt as more than a third turn to charity to feed and clothe children 

  8th October 2020 | Save the Children

Fears of a cold, hard winter ahead with 26% already cutting back on heating and electricity and parents forced into debt to buy winter coats for children

  • Large-scale survey of families on Universal Credit and Child Tax Credit finds 38% have been forced to rely on help from charities for food and clothes in the past two months, while 60% have gone into debt. On average, families borrowed over £1,700 in the last two months alone.
  • More than a third (38%) of hard-pressed families have been left even worse off by the pandemic, with 27% reporting that they’re finding it even harder to afford food now than in April.
  • Fears of a cold, hard winter ahead with 26% already cutting back on heating and electricity and parents forced into debt to buy winter coats for children.
  • Results come as parents face benefit cuts of £1000 from April. Save the Children calls on Chancellor to scrap this planned cut, and provide more help to get struggling families though the winter. 
More than a third of families on Universal Credit and Child Tax Credits have had to rely on help from charities for food or children’s clothes over the past two months, new research by Save the Children reveals. 

Four in ten low income families say they have been left even worse off as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, with 60% of those polled reporting that they’ve sunk into debt in the past two months. Of those who have had to take out loans to get by, almost half have borrowed more than £1000, with the average debt around £1,700. Half of all those surveyed said they are in rent arrears or behind on household bills. 

Research by Save the Children and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in June found that 70% of families had to cut back on food and other essentials when the pandemic hit. The new figures suggest things have not improved for many families: 27% reported that they’re finding it even harder to afford food now than in April. 

Save the Children is warning that the winter will be more difficult than ever for many families, with an inevitable rise in heating and other household costs, and local lockdowns and the prospect of further job losses increasing the pressure on already over-stretched household budgets. 

Less than half of those polled thought the government was doing enough to help low income families like them. This figure fell among those polled after the government announced its Job Support Scheme. 

Parents surveyed spoke of the ‘shame’ of not being able to provide for their children, while others worried their children were being set back because they couldn’t afford laptops or other learning materials. 

Denise, a single mum to two children, lost her job in retail when the pandemic hit, and is relying on Universal Credit while she looks for work. 

About two and half weeks after I’ve been paid my bank account is usually looking pretty empty. I’m pretty good at budgeting, but it still just isn’t enough. And then you end up getting into debt,” she said. 

“I can just about cover the basics, but having kids doesn’t work that way -- there’s always something else you need. You’re forever having to buy kids new stuff – they’re always growing out of things. My daughter needs a new winter coat, and they always need new shoes, and then you have the school uniforms on top of that.  And they either have to go without, or you have to borrow money. I feel like I’m forever borrowing money.”

Sabina, from Central London, has an 11-year-old son and has been receiving Universal Credit since she lost her job as a Teaching Assistant in December. 

“I always know there will be a week or two where I won’t have much money at all. My rent and council tax comes to just under £1000 a month -- that’s more than half of the money I get in Universal Credit. So you’re basically just about getting by. It’s a struggle,” she said.

“When the money runs out, I have to use up every last source of food in my house to feed my son, and I will just go without or eat something small. The other day I didn’t have any money for the electric so we went for a whole evening without electricity until I could borrow money from a neighbour to top it up.

“We’ve always kind of struggled, even when I was in employment. Without the help, I don’t know what I would have done when I lost my job. But it isn’t enough. People shouldn’t have to live like this.”

Save the Children is calling for a Winter Plan for children, including an urgent £10-a-week increase to either child benefit or the child element of Universal Credit and Child Tax Credit to help families through the winter.  

Last week, it joined 49 other charities to urge chancellor Rishi Sunak not to take over £1000 away from families come April, when a boost to Universal Credit introduced at the start of the pandemic will be taken away. If families receive £20 per week less April 2021 as planned, there will be a marked surge in poverty levels, they warned, at a time when the unemployment will be on the rise.  

40% of families surveyed by Save the Children said that they would have to cut back on food or other essentials if the benefits cuts go ahead.

Becca Lyon, Head of Child Poverty at Save the Children, said:

With winter on its way and more job losses expected, things are about to get even more difficult for families still reeling from the cost of lockdown. Parents tell us they’re already having to go without meals or electricity when their money runs out, and many are worried that the cost of heating their homes through the winter will push them into even more debt. 

It’s just not right that parents are having to borrow money, sell their possessions or rely on charity to buy winter coats for their children. Our country’s safety net is supposed to help those who need it through difficult times. But families with children, many of whom were struggling even before the crisis, are being left – quite literally – in the cold.  

The Chancellor set out his plan for jobs, which is crucial given the unemployment rise facing us. But he must also recognise the added pressure families are under right now, and make policy decisions that reflect that reality, and have our children’s best interests at heart.

"At the very least, we’re urging the chancellor not to go ahead with plans to take away £1000 in benefits from low income households next April, which would leave families with children in a desperate situation. And an additional £10 per week now would mean parents don’t have to choose between buying warm winter clothes for their children or keeping the heating on that bit longer.”

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has received more than 400,000 new applications from families for Universal Credit since the beginning of the crisis. Prior to the crisis, 2.6 million families were on Universal Credit, of which almost 1.2 million were families with children.



For more information contact: 

Charlotte Rose, Senior Media Manager, Save the Children 

media@savethechildren.org.uk / 0203 763 1247 / 07831650409 (out of hours) 



·         Opinium conducted an online survey of 3,100 parents of children under 18 across the UK, claiming either Universal Credit or Child Tax Credit for Save the Children between 17 and 30 September 2020 

·         These results are not directly comparable with the survey which Save the Children and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation ran in June 2020, due to differences in question wording and weighting. 

Figures on the number of families receiving Universal Credit are available from the Department for Work and Pensions Stat-Explore website: https://stat-xplore.dwp.gov.uk/webapi/jsf/login.xhtml

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