Britain’s cost of living crisis is spiralling out of control. The rise in food and energy bills is swiftly outstripping the disposable income of thousands of families, forcing them to make impossible choices between heating their homes, buying groceries, or putting aside money for their work commute.
According to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), more than 250,000 households across the country will fall into “destitution” as early as next year – taking the number of those living in extreme poverty to a whopping 1.2 million – if the government does not take immediate action to help struggling families.
It did not have to be this way. Think-tanks, activists, opposition politicians, and frankly everyone with any understanding of the myriad struggles facing Britain’s working-class communities have long been urging the Tory government to reverse its post-Brexit welfare cuts, increase universal credit, and make small, one-off cash payments to those in most need to stop poverty levels skyrocketing in one of the world’s leading economies.
Regrettably, the government chose to do the exact opposite. In October 2021, as the nation was still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences, for example, it slashed universal credit payments by 20 British pounds ($25) a week, leaving countless vulnerable Britons unable to pay their bills and put food on their table.
And this April, as skyrocketing energy prices added more urgency to an already devastating crisis, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said it would be “silly” for the government to provide more help to struggling families now. Despite households across the country facing an average £700 ($879) increase in their gas and electricity bills immediately after April, with another 50 percent spike expected in October, Sunak – whose family is worth more than £700 million ($879 million) – said he won’t act before “knowing what the situation will be in autumn”.
These days, when criticised for not doing enough quickly enough to address the cost of living crisis, Sunak points to the so-called £200 ($251) energy bill “discount” he arranged for British households to receive on their bill in October. This, however, as many repeatedly pointed out, is not a “grant” but a “loan”, meaning people will be forced to pay it back to the state starting in 2023 – in other words, whatever respite the “discount” may provide now will be cancelled once the government demands it back a few months later.
Earlier this month, after the Office for National Statistics revealed that inflation reached 9 percent in the year to April – the highest one-year increase in more than 30 years – Sunak said, “Countries around the world are dealing with rising inflation … We cannot protect people completely from these global challenges”.
There is no denying that it is not only Britain that is facing a cost of living crisis today. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the conflict in Ukraine, several challenges came together to brew a perfect storm, increasing the economic vulnerability of the poorest communities across the globe.
Nevertheless, it is also dishonest to deny that our current government has a particular disinterest in helping the poorest and most vulnerable in society. And this is causing the British working class and the poor to suffer more during this time of global economic upheaval than their counterparts in other developed economies.
In Britain, fully employed nurses say they rely on food banks to feed their families.
In Britain, pensioners say they ride the bus all day, every day to remain warm because they can no longer afford to pay their energy bills.
In Britain, new mothers say they skip meals to be able to buy their babies’ formula.
And this is not a problem affecting only an unfortunate few. The Trussell Trust, an NGO that works to end the need for food banks in the UK, said food banks in their network distributed 2.1 million emergency food parcels from April 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022 – a 14 percent increase from the previous year. Eight-hundred-and-thirty-thousand of these parcels were provided for children. According to research by the Food Foundation, in this country “around one in seven adults live in homes where people have skipped meals, eaten smaller portions or gone hungry all day because they could not afford or access food.”
Despite all this, those in government act as if all this suffering was inevitable. Worse, they claim that the desperate situation many of us working-class Britons find ourselves in is our own fault – a consequence of our supposed inability to live our lives efficiently.
Recently, Conservative MP Lee Anderson argued in the House of Commons, without a hint of irony, that food banks are mostly “unnecessary” because the leading cause of food poverty is not actual poverty but a lack of cooking and budgetary skills.
While his tone-deaf comments attracted much condemnation from the public, opposition MPs, and campaigners, his Conservative colleagues rushed to support him, showing that they share his misguided beliefs about food poverty.
MP Brendan Clarke-Smith, for example, penned an entire op-ed for the Daily Express newspaper explaining why Anderson’s offensive comments on food banks were actually “completely spot on”. Meanwhile, MP Jacob Rees Mogg – who once claimed food banks are “rather uplifting” as they show what a “compassionate” country Britain is – said he would not have made Anderson’s comments, but only because he “cannot cook” himself.
Britain’s cost of living crisis is undoubtedly part of a larger pattern. Nevertheless, millions of working-class Britons are not struggling to heat their homes and feed their children in the world’s fifth-largest economy simply because of “global challenges”.
They are struggling because this country is being led through this crisis by a party whose members have nothing but contempt and disdain for the poor.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.