A perfect storm of high inflation and low growth is gathering over the national economy. Here in mid-Wales, the numbers of those dependent on Universal Credit are climbing, new data shows, meaning more are finding it harder to make ends meet. And the rest of us are feeling the pinch too.
It’s tough right now. And the going is about to get rougher, as prices look set to keep rising, fuel prices have reached new highs, and the economic pinch is being felt by those at the lower end of the economic spectrum.
The latest data from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) covering February shows that 42 per cent of the 7,271 households receiving Universal Credit in Gwynedd are families with children. And that includes 2,137 single-parent households.
In Ceredigion, the number of people on Universal Credit is at its highest figures since last August in the wake then of strict coronavirus lockdown measures. According to the DWP figures from 14 April, 4,504 people were receiving Universal Credit in Ceredigion – the highest number since August.
households in Gwynedd are claiming Universal Credit
of households in Gwynedd claiming Universal Credit are families with children
Sources: DWP, ONS
That figure includes the 41 per cent of households receiving Universal Credit in Ceredigion who are families with children, including 956 single-parent households.Carer Sarah Hughes, a single parent lives near Tregaron and works in Aberystwyth is one of the working poor.
“I currently work 25 hours a week for liveability at Plas Lluest in Aberystwyth,” she told Cambrian News. “From that I take home around £1,100 a month which goes entirely on bills. I then get £400 housing costs which go on rent and £334.91 Universal credit to live on.”
“The more I earn to survive, the less Universal Credit I get. A few months ago, I earnt £1,300 and so I was given £400 instead of my usual amount.”
“It [Universal Credit] is a help and it’s not enough. There are people worse off than me too, it’s like working my guts out while there are those who are sitting pretty without having to work.”
In Gwynedd, 43 per cent of people on Universal Credit in Gwynedd were in employment.
single-parent households in Gwynedd are claiming Universal Credit
Universal Credit payment monthly for a person over 25
new claimants started receiving Universal Credit in April
increase in the number of Universal Credit claimants between December 2021 and April 2022
Sources: DWP, ONS
Universal Credit is a monthly payment available to those on low incomes and those out of work. The exact amount varies on your circumstances, but it is currently worth around £335 a month for a single person over 25.
Universal Credit has come under scrutiny in recent months, as the rising cost of basic household goods and energy has driven some to call for the rate to be increased, or for it to be made more widely accessible.
“The cost-of-living crisis is having a devastating impact on people across Gwynedd,” Liz Saville Roberts MP told Cambrian News.“
As elsewhere in the UK, families are being forced to eat or heat, and as always, it is those on the lowest incomes who are bearing the brunt of this fall in living standards,” she said.T
hat brunt is being felt in places like the Jubilee Storehouse, the main foodbank for Aberystwyth and the surrounding areas and based out of St Anne’s in Penparcau.
“For the foodbank here, we have seen a significant increase in the number of people needing food packs,” the Revd Dr Liz Rees told the Cambrian News. “In 2019 pre-pandemic, we were providing food for approximately 200 people — both adults and children — per month.
“When the pandemic first hit and people were unable to work, that need rose to around 260 per month.“The average number for 2022 to date with the increased cost of living etcetera, has risen to about 300. Unfortunately, we see no signs of these doing anything other than continuing to increase.
households in Ceredigion are claiming Universal Credit
of households in Ceredigion claiming Universal Credit are families with children
single-parent households in Ceredigion are claiming Universal Credit
Sources: DWP, ONS
“The number of people who are currently in work but are coming to us because they are in financial hardship because of the rising cost of living is also increasing.
“People are sharing that the main reasons they need help are due to general financial hardship because of the cost of living, rising energy costs — surprise big bills — the reduction in Universal Credit and delays in being able to claim Universal Credit.
“We are now also seeing some referrals come in with a request for food that does not need cooking because people are worried about the cost of the energy required to cook,” she told Cambrian News.“
In line with this, in The Well, where we provide meals for anyone who is in need, we have also seen need significant increase in the number of people who are coming.
“When we first re-opened after the pandemic at the end of 2020, we were serving approximately 25 meals each time we opened. This has steadily increased, more so during this year. Last week, we served over 50 meals in a single session for the first time. In the colder months when energy prices were first talked about going up, people would also come to us because it was somewhere warm to be when they couldn’t afford to put the heating on at home,” Revd Dr Rees said.
“I have repeatedly called on this UK Tory government to make permanent the £20 uplift in Universal Credit, a small step towards easing the burden on thousands of people who are struggling financially,” MP Saville Roberts said.
“With mounting living costs, I want to see Universal Credit, as well as other benefits, being brought in line with inflation to cover the real cost of living.“It may seem like small change to the government, but it is the difference between turning the heating on or buying food for the kids for many people in my constituency.
“To lift Wales out of poverty we urgently need to restore the deep cracks in our welfare system caused by years of austerity. It’s clear that Westminster is not up to the job. We urgently need powers over welfare to be fully devolved to the Senedd,” she said.
Those are sentiments echoed by fellow MP Ben Lake.“
It is concerning to learn that the number of people receiving Universal Credit in Ceredigion has reached its highest level since last August, as the level of support it provides is inadequate, even before recent rises in living costs,” he told Cambrian News.
“Indeed, it was a mistake for the UK Government to refuse to uprate state pensions and Universal Credit in line with inflation, as this would have at least meant that recipients would have received help during the cost-of-living crisis.
“The Chancellor should reconsider this decision, and at the very least restore the £20 a week uplift that was cut last autumn.
across Britain were claiming Universal Credit in April
support from Whitehall in 2022 to help with rising energy bills
more people were claiming Universal Credit in April than in December 2021.
Sources: DWP, ONS
“The Government’s general package of support for families to tackle rising living costs is inadequate, and more needs to be done to help families across Ceredigion with rising fuel and energy costs in particular.
“Investment in energy efficiency measures and public transport is essential to provide some solace in the long-term, but in the immediate future the Government needs to extend the Rural Fuel Duty Relief Scheme to areas like Ceredigion, and include off-grid heating fuels in the energy price cap. These are issues that I am pursuing with Government Ministers in earnest,” he said.
In Machynlleth the local foodbank — Bank Bwyd Bro Dyfi — the number of people it is helping has increased dramatically from before to after the pandemic.“
Bwyd Bro Dyfi historically has never been as busy as other larger towns in the area, which stands to reason as they have a greater population,” secretary Clive Thomas told the Cambrian News. “Notwithstanding that, we have seen an increase in parcels given out since Covid. Our annual average pre-Covid was 55 or 60, they now stand around the 150 mark.
“We expected this to rise after the energy price cap increase, with rising food costs and fuel increases, surprisingly this hasn’t happened.
“Our monthly figures for this year supports this fact. It will be interesting to see what other foodbanks have to say, do they find the same thing, or are we bucking the trend in this area for some reason?
“Looking at the figures over the years and trying to look at any pinch points, we could hopefully then target any help needed. There never has been any pattern to parcels given out, such as more in winter — but one stat has been noticeable. Forty to 50 per cent of parcels issued have been to single males.
“The next couple of months will be interesting, especially with the energy price cap going up in October. Will all the financial pressure on households take a little longer to feed through to the demand on foodbanks? “All we can do is ensure we are prepared and ready to meet peoples’ needs, and help those families in real need,” he said.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charity tackling poverty in the UK, is one of many such agencies that has criticised the Government for not increasing the benefit in line with inflation.
A senior policy advisor at the charity, Iain Porter, said: “With inflation nearing double digits, benefits were only uprated by 3.1 per cent, their lowest in real terms in 40 years.”
“We already know of parents skipping meals so their children can eat, families using a single lightbulb to limit electricity use, and cutting back on showers to save water.”
Last week, the chief secretary to treasury, Simon Clarke, ruled out reinstating the £20-a-week uplift to the benefit.
And work and pensions minister Therese Coffee announced a £600 million plan to clamp down on benefit fraud, including plans to give new powers to DWP officers which would allow them to make arrests and seize evidence.
Across Great Britain there were 5.6 million people receiving Universal Credit as of April 14, up 35,000 from January 13, but down from a peak of 6 million people in March 2021.
Provisional data shows 162,000 people started receiving the benefit in the month to April 2022, 25 per cent more than the 122,000 starts made in the month to December.
A spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions said: “Universal Credit provides a vital safety net to 5.6 million people and we want everyone to get the support to which they’re entitled.
“We recognise the pressures on the cost of living and we are doing what we can to help, including spending £22 billion across the next financial year to support people with energy bills and cut fuel duty.
Harry Hayfield, a former carer who lives in Llanrhystud, told Cambrian News he has been struggling to make ends meet while living on Universal Credit.
“As soon as the energy cap increase happened, it became clear that I would have to make further sacrifices and during the winter, even though I was following Welsh government advice on ventilation by keeping a window open, I had to choose between heating and eating, and as a result spent most evenings with a sleeping bag around me to keep comfortable.”
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