Suffolk charities Haverhill Reach, Citizens Advice and Suffolk Community Foundation on 'frightening' cost-of-living data as inflation hits 9%
'There is no wiggle room left for people', a charity boss has said, as data reveals the financial 'crush' facing the poorest households - and things are set to get even harder.
With prices rising at their fastest rate for 40 years, Henry Wilson MBE, CEO of Haverhill charity Reach Community Projects, which provides support including food boxes and money advice, spoke to SuffolkNews about the struggles his clients are facing.
Our conversation was in the context of cost-of-living data on the website www.healthysuffolk.org.uk/jsna/cost-of-living, which we have explored for this piece.
This 'Suffolk cost-of-living dashboard' provides regularly-refreshed local and national information on areas like inflation, fuel poverty, family expenditure, free school meals and foodbank use.
Mr Wilson said: "The government talk about this being a squeeze, but for the people we talk to this is more like a crunch or a crush. This isn't just squeezing, this is crushing."
He added: "I have wondered whether people could die as a result of this. They might have underlying health conditions already and don't put the heating on."
We have also spoken with Citizens Advice West Suffolk and the Suffolk Community Foundation, charities that have also expressed concern about the deepening cost-of-living crisis.
Inflation and family expenditure
UK inflation has just surged to a new record of 9 per cent - up from 7 per cent in March - as higher energy bills hit millions of households.
The cost-of-living dashboard shows the inflation rate for housing, water and fuels has rocketed to 19.2 per cent, while it is 13.5 per cent for transport, 10.5 per cent for furniture, household equipment and maintenance, 8.3 per cent for clothing and footwear and 6.7 per cent for food and non-alcoholic drinks.
And it is the poorest households that are undoubtedly the hardest hit, with the latest figures on UK family expenditure revealing those in the 10 per cent lowest income households are spending nearly 40 per cent of their gross annual income on housing, fuel and power and food and non-alcoholic drink - more than double than those in the highest income households.
Broken down, this is 24 per cent of their gross income on housing, fuel and power and 14 per cent on food and non-alcoholic drink for the 10 per cent lowest income households.
This data, released in March 2021, is for the financial year ending in 2020.
Reach Community Projects is 'very much' seeing more people with food and debt issues - and more people needing support who are in work - but Mr Wilson said what was 'most alarming' is the increase in the number of children they are feeding through food boxes. This is now three times higher than it was a year ago (61 in April 2022 compared to 21 in April 2021).
Mr Wilson said: "I'm not convinced the government would do anything. I'm hopeful they will because if they don't I dread to think what is going to happen. There is no wiggle room left for people."
Mr Wilson said the government did a 'fantastic' job of looking after people during the Covid pandemic, but was 'letting itself down' with the cost-of-living crisis.
A Government spokesperson said it was providing British families with a £22 billion package of support, but it couldn't shield everyone from the global challenges we face.
Mr Wilson said while Reach is not necessarily seeing an exponential rise is the number of food boxes they are giving out, the sizes of the boxes are increasing to cater for families with children.
Foodbank data in the 'Suffolk cost-of-living dashboard' shows the number of food parcels being distributed in Suffolk is more than a year ago, with 6,268 given out in March 2022 compared to 5,519 the previous March, although down from a peak in January, 2022, of 7,659.
This information is provided on a monthly basis by 35 of the foodbanks, community pantries, community pop-up shops and food providers that are able to collate data, within the Suffolk Foodbank Network.
The report 'Making ends meet: The cost of living in Suffolk', which goes with the data dashboard, says the decline in food parcels distributed between January-February 2022 should be interpreted with caution. The figures appear lower, however historically there is a drop in donations at this time of the year and significantly so for 2022 due to increasing costs.
Mr Wilson described the level of food donations at Reach currently as 'reasonable', and added they are able to get food out to the people who need it.
Free school meals
Food struggles are also evident in the data on free school meals, which shows a steady rise in the percentage of children who are eligible: in Suffolk this had risen to 18.1 per cent by 2020/21.
This is higher than the East of England average of 16.7 per cent, but less than the national average of 20.8 per cent.
In 2017/18 only 10.8 per cent of Suffolk schoolchildren were known to be eligible so the 2020/21 information represents a percentage rise of 7.3 per cent.
Fuel poverty is another measure in the 'Suffolk cost-of-living dashboard' that paints a worrying picture of household finances.
A household is considered to be in fuel poverty if they are left with an income below the official poverty line after spending to heat their home.
A total of 14.5 per cent of Suffolk households were fuel poor in 2020, compared to an England average of 13.2 per cent.
A closer look at areas within Suffolk shows Ipswich had the highest proportion of fuel poverty at 17.4 per cent, while it was lowest in West Suffolk at 12.9 per cent.
Mr Wilson said the poorest are hit the hardest by rising costs and have the least wriggle room, adding 'this year it's going to get even harder'.
He spoke of one of their clients, a working mum with a young child, who has not had her heating on since Storm Eunice in February.
"People are on low income and might have not very highly-paid jobs and it means they just haven't got quite enough money to stretch it out that far. They are making cutbacks, but what can they cut back on any more?" said Mr Wilson.
Reach's waiting list for help is growing, and Mr Wilson said not getting to people more quickly felt 'horrible'.
Citizens Advice is another charity that is helping people with money worries.
Carol Eagles, CEO at Citizens Advice West Suffolk, said: "We are extremely concerned that the increased costs of energy, petrol and food will push more individuals and families in West Suffolk into poverty.
"We want to reassure residents that we are there to help everyone with maximising income, managing debt and sourcing charitable support.
"We can provide quality assured advice on a whole range of issues including housing, employment, utilities, debt and benefits."
The Suffolk Community Foundation, which supports the voluntary sector in Suffolk, is now running its Surviving Winter Appeal for 12 months of the year, with an emphasis now on preparing people for next winter.
Tim Holder, head of public affairs at the Suffolk Community Foundation, said the figures in economic deprivation were just 'sky-rocketing' - which was 'very frightening for all concerned'.
"The worrying situation here is that after families have been struggling on all levels through Covid already with a high level of persistent poverty in Suffolk, we now find a situation where the cost of living is far out-stripping even more people in terms of being able to manage their costs," he said.
"It's incredibly worrying because for those who were already in that situation, it's bad for them and it's going to get worse and many, many more people - we are now possibly saying one in five in the county - could be experiencing severe economic hardship."
He added this also impacts negatively on people's health and wellbeing.
But Mr Holder said Suffolk had shown through how it had responded to the coronavirus pandemic that it can tackle big crises by working together, including the voluntary and public sectors, businesses and local communities.
"This is the hope," he said. "This is an important part of the solution: continuing with projects like Surviving Winter to tackle this problem together."
What the government and Suffolk County Council are doing
Suffolk County Council’s poverty strategy and action plan has recently been published.
Among measures already happening have been extending the Suffolk Advice and Support Service and Local Welfare Assistance Scheme, thanks to £1.1million of Suffolk Public Sector Leaders cash, and emergency food supplies where foodbanks have been running low.
Speaking recently at a meeting, Bobby Bennett, Conservative cabinet member for communities and equality on Suffolk County Council, said: "This is an extraordinarily broad piece of work that is already being carried out across Suffolk to tackle the impact of poverty. It's such an important issue for our residents.
"The plan draws on the expertise of people in Suffolk who have experienced poverty and from frontline organisations who offer help and support.
"This document pulls together the many strands of work that have been happening on the ground, helping people for many, many months, as well as looking to the future."
The report 'Making ends meet: The cost of living in Suffolk' and the cost-of-living dashboard are the evidence base that supports the poverty strategy and action plan.
The 'Making ends meet' report said: "The cost of living has increased both nationally and locally. Inflation continues to climb, the impact of Covid-19 is still being felt and the invasion of Ukraine has further increased pressures.
"Everyone will be affected by these cost increases, however the impact will be greatest for those who are already under financial pressure."
It said for households in Suffolk experiencing an imbalance between the cost of living and the quality of living, there would be 'real sacrifices in quality of life to get core bills paid'.
"It is clear that there is more to be done, both in terms of monitoring the data and intelligence, but also in terms of preventing people falling into crisis due to increasing costs," it said.
The government spokesperson said: "We understand that people are struggling with rising prices, and while we can’t shield everyone from the global challenges we face, we're supporting British families to navigate the months ahead with a £22 billion package of support.
“That includes saving the typical employee over £330 a year through a tax cut in July, allowing people on Universal Credit to keep more of the money they earn – benefitting over a million families by around £1000 a year, and providing millions of households with up to £350 each to help with rising energy bills.”
Where to find support
- Citizens Advice: Call advisors on 0808 2787868 or go to the website https://suffolkwestcab.org.uk/advice/. Also, get in touch if you are interested in training to become an adviser.
- Surviving Winter Appeal: To receive support from Suffolk Community Foundation’s Surviving Winter Appeal, you can contact Citizen’s Advice on 01473 219770. To donate to the appeal, visit www.suffolkcf.org.uk or call 01473 602 602.
- Reach Community Projects: Visit www.reachhaverhill.org.uk, call 01440 712950, email firstname.lastname@example.org and for Newmarket call 07733 674605 or email email@example.com