‘It’s not a choice between heating or eating because you can’t afford to do any. We’re lucky if we get one hot meal a week, me and my husband, because we insist on feeding the kids first because that’s what you do as a parent. Where does it stop? What else do we cut out of our lives - just to keep your kids fed?’
Lexie is a parent on a low income. While lots of us are facing alarming energy bills this winter, for many parents like Lexie putting the heating on and having regular hot meals is not an option. Her family simply cannot afford to.
Gabriel is also not able to put the heating on, even though she’s been advised she should for health reasons:
‘I am absolutely freezing… The thermostat says 12 degrees... I am too scared to put the heating on even though people with multiple sclerosis should ideally be at 18/9 degrees all the time’.
The reality is if you are on a low income, and have nothing left to cut from your very tightly-managed budget, you go without. And you especially go without to ensure your children don’t. But the situation for many families is now so dire that families are struggling to protect their children from it. Winnie is struggling to keep her home as warm as her children need:
‘My youngest child has asthma… he's often admitted to hospital in winter… I know this winter will be bad. The worry is affecting my mental health... It's affecting my children too, you can see they are getting depressed as we scale back in everything.’
Lexie, Gabriel and Winnie are parents taking part in the Changing Realities research programme, which is a partnership between parents and carers on a low income, the University of York and Child Poverty Action Group. We are working together to document life on a low income and push for change. We want to see families get support that reflects what they actually need, and this just isn’t happening.
Together, parents taking part in Changing Realities have reflected on the support the government has put in place, and what needs to change. The government has chosen one-off payments as the main way it is supporting people through the energy crisis. But these don’t reflect families’ realities: flat-rate payments don’t account for children, and one-off payments make budgeting much harder when there are long gaps between support payments. They also don’t go far enough, as Artie explains:
‘I’m grateful for the payment, it helps ease my mind about food. The help means I know I can get enough food in the house, but honestly, I’m still not able to put the heating on... Not being able to turn on the heating means my joints are feeling stiffer and more painful. I'm sleeping with gloves on.’
The support for disabled people has been particularly inadequate. The £150 payment only offsets a fraction of the increased energy costs disabled people often have to meet.
Changing Realities participants want to see the government move away from temporary, one-off payments and towards regular payments. Investing in social security should be the priority, with increases to child benefit and personal independence payment in particular. We know that providing support in this way will help families and will reduce child poverty.
With the energy price guarantee rising in April, Changing Realities participants are also calling for a social tariff for energy that is easily accessible to everyone on a low income, wherever they live in the UK.
We all know that families with children are likely to face higher energy costs. There’s extra washing, more mouths to cook for, and electricity for devices needed for homework. These costs have soared far beyond what families on a low income can afford, and the support provided has not gone nearly far enough. The effects are devastating:
‘It’s not living anymore, is it? It’s barely surviving…’ - Lexie
Changing realities has just published a new briefing: Keeping Warm this Winter documenting families’ experiences of trying to keep warm, and setting out proposals for change.
The Changing Realities research project is funded by abdrn Financial Fairness Trust. abrdn Financial Fairness Trust funds research, policy work and campaigning activities to tackle financial problems and improve living standards for people on low-to-middle incomes in the UK. It is an independent charitable trust registered in Scotland (SC040877). The views in this piece are the author’s.
Photo credit: Paul Shields/University of York.