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Preventing destitution: Policy and practice in the UK

In 2016, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published a report on destitution in the UK (Fitzpatrick et al, 2016), which was a response to trends such as rising homelessness and the proliferation of foodbanks, which were seen as indications that severe poverty in the UK was rising.

While the measurement of poverty has been the subject of debate for a considerable time in the UK, the concept of destitution is more recent. In contrast to poverty, there is no government definition of or statistics on destitution. But according to Fitzpatrick et al (2016), someone is considered destitute if they have gone without two or more of the following essentials for an extended period over the course of a month: food, shelter, heating, lighting, clothing and toiletries. A person may also be considered destitute if they have an extremely low income with insufficient savings to cover the cost of these essentials. JRF has just published an update to the 2016 report (Fitzpatrick et al, 2018), which estimates that, in 2017, 1.55 million people in 785,000 households experienced destitution at some point during the course of the year.

This report makes extensive use of Fitzpatrick et al’s (2016, 2018) work, both for context and to operationalise the concept of destitution.

Focus of this report: the ‘UK-other’ group

The reports by Fitzpatrick et al (2016, 2018) identify three groups of destitute people in the UK:

• those with ‘complex needs’ – anyone who experiences two or more of the following: homelessness, substance misuse, offending, domestic violence or begging

• ‘migrants’ – anyone born outside of the UK (who does not have complex needs)

• ‘UK-other’ – anyone who does not fall into the preceding two categories.

The presence of destitution among the first two groups is established in the research and policy literature (see the discussion in Fitzpatrick et al, 2015), whereas the UK other group has emerged as a concern more recently (Butler, 2017).

The UK-other group is the focus of this report, which attempts to fill the gap in knowledge about people in the group by looking at the policy, practice and other factors leading to their destitution. In Fitzpatrick et al’s (2018) report, the group comprised 68% of destitute households. The largest household type within the group was single adult (60%), the group tended to skew more towards older working-age people than other age groups and 23% of households in the group contained children.

As the focus of the research, unless there is a specific need to contrast them with either the complex needs or migrant groups, this report refers to the UK-other group as ‘destitute people’. Some have called this group ‘the new destitute’, as before the programme of welfare reforms first announced in 2010, they did not appear frequently in the literature, in contrast with migrants (Butler, 2017). Many interviewees for this research felt that destitution has increased among the group over the past few years. But as Fitzpatrick et al’s (2016) report was the first large-scale attempt to estimate the number in the group, it is difficult to know whether the group has grown since 2010 with any degree of certainty.