Who’s paying for the UK’s cost of living crisis?

part ofAt What Cost?
Who’s paying for the UK’s cost of living crisis?
Using insight gleaned from original data analysis, Huck drills deeper into the biggest drop in living standards in decades to understand its impact on real people in real time.

At What Cost is a series mapping the cost of living crisis in real time, visiting crisis hotspots around the UK to understand the unique challenges faced by those most at risk, and highlighting some of those fighting back.

In early January 2022, the UK recorded the highest inflation in 30 years. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) had risen to 5.4% for December 2021; widely reported to be an indicator of the coming cost of living crisis, which loomed large as we rumbled into 2022.

Days after the announcement, food writer and poverty campaigner Jack Monroe started to tweet about the realities of food price increases for the poorest households. In a viral thread, Monroe examined the rise in the price of basic and value range food over the course of a year. A 500g bag of value pasta up from 29p to 70p – an increase of 141%. A 1kg bag of rice up from 45p to £1 – an increase of 344%. A can of baked beans up by 45%. Canned spaghetti up 169%. A loaf of basics bread up 29%. The list went on. Monroe’s thread, which prompted a national discussion, eventually led to the Office for National Statistics (who compiled the CPI through a ‘set basket’ of goods which, somewhat farcically, included Champagne) to admit that everyone had their own individual inflation rate, and that it must do better to reflect these realities.

Monroe has set about creating her own Food Price Index – the Vimes Boots Food Poverty Index – to better track and understand these individual inflation rates, with a focus on how increase in prices, or the removal of things like value ranges, impacts the most vulnerable households.

For those of us looking to report on the impact of the cost of living crisis, understanding the limitations of the methods of measurement available to us, the question must be: who are the most vulnerable households, where are they and how do we reach them?

Thousands took to the streets in early 2022 to protest against the skyrocketing cost of living.

Photo by Aiyush Pachnanda

The most recent available poverty data shows that in 2020/21 around one in five people in the UK were in poverty. That equates to 13.4 million people, or the combined populations of London, Greater Manchester and Leeds-Bradford. Of these, 7.9 million were working age adults, 3.9 million were children and 1.7 million were pensioners.

This represents a reduction in headline poverty figures between 2019/20 and 2020/21 which, given the context of the economic shock of the Coronavirus pandemic, is somewhat surprising. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) explains in their UK Poverty 2023 report, the fall happened because of “changes to overall incomes, policy choices and how the pandemic affected different populations.”

During the first year of the pandemic, falling average incomes caused the relative poverty line to drop. This happened at the same time that temporary Covid-related support was in place, such as the £20 uplift in Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits. In truth, the data doesn’t reflect people getting richer or being lifted out of poverty in a meaningful way, but huge swathes of the country getting poorer.

Organisations like the JRF have been invaluable in understanding these impacts on a national scale, observing trends and groups.

There are a number of different ways to measure poverty. When we refer to poverty throughout this piece we are referring to the relative poverty rate after housing costs. As defined by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation this is where someone's household's income, adjusted for family size and composition, is below 60% of the middle household's income. This measure looks at whether the income of poorer households are catching up with average incomes 

13.4 million people in Britain, or the combined populations of London, Greater Manchester and Leeds-Bradford, live in poverty.

Geographically, Northern Ireland and Scotland had a lower poverty rate than England and Wales, with the North East and London having the highest rates. Rates of poverty also vary dramatically across different ethnic backgrounds. According to the JRF analysis ‘approximately half of all people in households headed by someone of Bangladeshi ethnicity were in poverty, whilst rates for people in households headed by someone of Pakistani or Black ethnicity had rates of poverty of more than 40% – more than twice the rate of people in households headed by someone of white ethnicity.’

Their data shows that poverty for families receiving Universal Credit or equivalents has remained high, at a rate of 46%. Moreover, families with three or more children have the highest poverty rates by family size. These rates come at a time when UC was uplifted by £20 a week. The removal of that uplift has had tangible real time effects and is why the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and food bank network and campaigning group The Trussell Trust have joined together, along with 90 other charities and organisations to call on the Government to make an 'essentials guarantee'

The JRF’s cost of living tracker showed that in Autumn 2022, 7.2 million people (or 62% of low income households) were going without essentials like food, heating, showers or toiletries. More than half were in arrears and a quarter using credit to pay essential bills.

"There was lots on the news about the cost of living crisis and Martin Lewis even joked about how, in the future, we’re going to be at the point where communities are going to need warm banks like we have food banks. Of course, that is now the case.”

Nicki Salmon, Creative Placemaking Manager at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon who opened a warm bank this winter

Earlier this year, Huck reported that approximately 140,000 people a week were accessing warm banks as part of the Warm Welcome scheme. Research into who was using these spaces, conducted in February 2023, found that over half of the respondents were in receipt of one or more benefits to help with the cost of living, while over a quarter were in receipt of one or more benefits related to disability and health conditions.

A large majority (85%) of those asked said they visited a space at least once a week, if not more, with 54% of respondents saying they would be at home with the heating off if they had not been at the space.

These figures paint a grim picture of a country in the grips of a crisis driven by astronomical rises in energy prices. But, much like analysis by the JRF, the figures are not without their limitations. The research from Warm Welcome offers a national snapshot of the situation, drawing from warm banks across the country on one singular day in February. The nature of the data doesn’t allow for pinpointing individual communities and stories to find the places where the crisis is really biting.

There has been amazing work done on mapping the impact of the energy crisis, particularly by Friends of the Earth, in identifying ‘energy crisis hotspots’ in a wide-ranging analysis released last summer. This data, while useful in understanding potential focal points, represents a speculative look at how it may play out, instead of how it actually did and continues to do so.

Half of the poorest fifth of families saying they had reduced spending on food for adults, and around four in ten families with children said they are spending less on food for their children.

When asked, almost a quarter of people at warm banks had smaller meals than usual or skipped meals before accessing the space, with that dropping down to 13% after their visit. Over a quarter of respondents had received information on food banks or pantries, with one in five being advised to contact food banks for further support. As the JRF points out, “almost a fifth of poor households experienced food insecurity in 2020/21, with more than a quarter of households receiving Universal Credit being food insecure.”

The JRFs cost of living tracker from Autumn 2022 offered an even bleaker picture, with half of the poorest fifth of families saying they had reduced spending on food for adults, and around four in ten families with children said they are spending less on food for their children.

While poverty is evidently a major driver of suffering, and those already impoverished are more likely to feel the effects most drastically, analysis of these households only gives us part of the story. The cost of living crisis has touched almost everyone in the country. Homeowners are being battered by rising interest rates, while renters are weathering the storm of unprecedented increases in housing costs. Food shoppers from Aldi to Harrods are seeing their weekly costs explode, while the price of simply heating one's home has given millions pause for thought as their fingers shivered over the thermostat this winter.

It is within this context that Huck decided to utilise figures released by The Trussell Trust, the UKs largest operator of food banks, to gain a more detailed, local and up-to-date picture of how the crisis is playing out. To understand where people are hurting right now, in Spring 2023, and use that to guide our journalism and the stories we seek-out going forward.

The figures from The Trussell Trust are not, in and of themselves, a complete picture. The Trust operates about two thirds of the food banks in the country, totalling around 1,200 food bank centres and with a presence in local authorities that cover approximately 85% of the UK population. This means that potentially a large minority of parcels delivered will be missed from this analysis.

Early on in our research we decided not to seek out and fold in data from other independent food banks. This is because Trussell Trust, which is by far the largest and most up to date set of food parcel data available has a specific way of counting parcels distributed (as well as having a uniform size for those parcels). Introducing data from independent food banks, whilst both incredibly time consuming, would have presented insurmountable challenges in being able to compare distribution rates across local authorities and nationally. 

“The reasons that people have to come and access our food bank are multifaceted. It could be a benefits problem that is often associated with years of struggling with a health condition. Or mental health issues which have built up because of debt issues. Or any number of things."

Joe Walker, manager Whitehawk food bank, east Brighton

As well as the parcels from independent food banks not being included in this research, there are also local and/or historical factors that shape each figure, meaning that utilising them will only ever give us an indicator of need or demand in a certain area.

In the year up to March 2023, The Trussell Trust distributed a record 2,986,203 parcels. Each parcel gives enough food for roughly three days. This figure is up 37% on the previous year, with December 2022 being the busiest on record for the trust, with a food parcel being delivered every eight seconds. Over 780,000 people used a Trussell Trust food bank for the first time during this period, which also saw 1 million parcels distributed to children.

The trust releases data on their distribution twice a year, with the most recent being released in April and covering the above period. It includes breakdowns of food parcel distribution by region and local authority.

The total number of parcels delivered per region offers a surprising picture of the country. Poverty data indicates that deprivation levels are highest in the North East and London, with the lowest levels being in South West and East of England at 19%, followed by South East and East Midlands at 20%. Yet, as we see, distribution of food bank parcels does not map this.

Over 100,000 more parcels were distributed in the South West than the North East, which runs contrary to how we might think the distribution would play out along poverty lines. The second highest number of parcels was distributed in the South East, with the third being the East of England, again contrary to what poverty data analysis might draw us to believe.

It’s clear that a more granular approach is needed to understand what's going on.

Drilling down into the data, we get more of an understanding of the distribution of parcels at the local level. Topping the list is Birmingham, which saw 72,932 parcels distributed in the year up to March 2023. Interestingly, this corresponds with Friends of the Earth’s energy crisis hotspot research, which named Birmingham as the place with the most number of at-risk neighbourhoods (64.9%). Cornwall, which is sixth on this list, also places third on the energy crisis hotspot list, with 46% of neighbourhoods at risk.

Elsewhere, Sheffield had the second highest number of parcels distributed per local authority, with Newcastle-Upon-Tyne being third, at 68,721 and 66,193 respectively. The number of parcels distributed in Newcastle-upon-Tyne represents around four in ten of all parcels distributed in the North East across this time period.

The London Boroughs of Camden and Ealing are fourth and fifth respectively, with Glasgow, Bristol, Leeds and Eastbourne accounting for seven through ten.

With the exception of Cornwall, a largely rural county, and Eastbourne, which is a town, all of those in the top ten are local authorities covering large, densely populated urban areas. While there is certainly utility in understanding the data in this way, particularly in cross-referencing it with other data sets to build out a broader picture of the drivers of the crisis, it also has its limitations.

According to the 2021 census, Birmingham had a population of 1,142,494, while Eastbourne had a population of 101,593 (over ten times fewer). Despite this disparity in population, Trussell Trust food banks in Birmingham gave out only slightly over double what was distributed in Eastbourne.

By viewing the number of parcels distributed through the prism of populations in the local authorities they pertain to, we get – in terms of this singular data set at least – a better understanding of the scale and the breadth of need across the country.

In the map above we’ve taken population data from the 2021 census for each of the local authorities with 2023 Trussell Trust data and calculated the number of parcels given out per capita to give a clearer picture of what is going on in each community. The key on the side relates to how many people in each locality there are per food parcel distributed.

To take the examples from above, we can see that Eastbourne saw one parcel distributed for every 3.23 people in the Local Authority - the highest of any we had data for. By comparison, Birmingham, which topped the distribution totals for the year, saw one parcel distributed for every 15.67 people - a far lower proportion than other local authorities.

Is Eastbourne the centre of the Cost of Living crisis?

Find out more

Places like Newcastle, Camden and Sheffield, which all placed in the top 10 local authorities by total food bank distribution, remain high, with rates of one parcel for every 4.51, 4.71 and 8.07 people respectively.

Other notable localities from the distribution list have dropped far down within the data. The county of Cornwall, which saw the 6th highest number of parcels given out has dropped to 90th at a rate of one parcel for every 15.55 people. Glasgow, which was 7th has dropped to 151st, with one parcel handed out for every 19.01 people. Leeds, which was 8th, now stands at 207th, at a rate of one parcel for every 25.4 people.

The average across the country was one parcel distributed for every 22.54 people.

They have been replaced by places like Worcester (5th), Blackburn (6th) and Hastings (7th). Oadby and Wigston in Leicestershire is now 4th, with one parcel distributed for every 5.72 people.

As we will continue to stress throughout this investigation, there are numerous local factors at play and parts of the statistical puzzle missing, but looking at the data this way completely changes the landscape of usage in the country and points to stories that go far beyond what most statistical analysis on its own can seek to explain. We see here that around the coasts of our islands, communities have huge needs, as is also the case in inner city areas.

We see particular hotspots in areas like the Cotswolds, which are rarely thought of or understood as places of deprivation. Across Scotland’s central belt and into the borders, we similarly see hotspots sprawling out from coast to coast.

The truth is, there is a story behind each place, each food bank parcel, and each person receiving them. Our aim with this investigation is to build on the incredible work of so many organisations to create a guide for ourselves to understand where the stories that most need telling are. 

Over the coming months, we’ll be using the trends we’ve uncovered here to seek them out. From national stories to in-depth looks at the towns and cities that appear deep blue on those maps, this investigation is just the beginning of our reporting on the people behind the figures, the realities of their lives and the ways in which they’re building and fighting together.

Follow Ben on Twitter.

Enjoyed this article? Follow Huck on Twitter and Instagram.

Latest on Huck

Sign up to our newsletter

Issue 80: The Ziwe issue

Buy it now