Money Wellness
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calendar icon24 Jan 2024

Woefully inadequate working-age benefits mean people can’t afford the basics

The past decade has seen working-age benefits slump to all-time lows, in relation to both the cost of living and earnings, new research reveals.

A study published by the Financial Fairness Trust shows weekly working-age benefits for a single person are worth £84.30. This is equivalent to 13% of average earnings.

In 2012 they were worth £96.44. That was 15% of average earnings.

For a couple with two children, weekly working-age benefits are worth £307.73. That is 47% of average earnings. Back in 2012, they were worth £351.51 – 56% of average earnings.

According to the research, the amount of money a single person needed in 2023 for food and energy was 22% more than their benefit income provided.

If they wanted to pay for other essentials like clothes, toiletries and travel, that would leave them even less to spend on food and energy.

Back in 2012, a single, working-age adult would have needed to spend 73% of their weekly benefits to cover their food and energy costs, leaving them £19 a week for essentials like clothes, toiletries and travel.

Inconsistent levels of support

The study also found that although the situation was pretty dire for most benefit claimants, some groups fare worse than others.

In terms of meeting the minimum income standard (MIS) – the amount needed to reach a socially acceptable living standard – working-age people without children come off worst. The benefits they receive provide only 27% of the amount they need to meet the MIS.

For families with children, working-age benefits provide about 40% of the amount they need to meet the MIS.

Pensioners fare the best with their state benefits providing 78% of the MIS.

It gets worse

And the picture is even bleaker than it looks at first glance for a lot of people, as the majority of those receiving welfare have to manage on less than the standard benefit rate. This might be because they are paying back loans they took out while waiting for their first payment. Or they may have had their benefits capped or subjected to the two-child limit.

To create a fairer system, the author of the report Professor Donald Hirsch calls for governments to be clear in their approach to keeping benefits at a fair level.

Extra support if your benefits don’t cover the basics

If you can’t afford to pay for essentials, there may be additional support you can get.

Food banks

If you’re struggling to put food on the table, you may be able to get a food-bank referral from a professional like your GP, health visitor, social worker or Citizens Advice. Your local foodbank will be able to tell you who they work with in your area.

Household support fund

Every local council in England has been given a pot of money to help people in that area who need emergency support due to the cost-of-living crisis. The kind of support provided varies from to council to council but it’s intended to help people cover the cost of essentials like food, bills and beds for children.

Get in touch with your local council to see what they’re offering. It’s probably best not to hang around though as the scheme is currently due to close at the end of March. 

Help with energy bills 

If you can’t afford your energy bill, the first thing you should do is get in touch with your supplier. A lot of energy companies offer grants to customers who are struggling or will be able to point you in the direction of other organisations offering support. Find out more in our guide on financial help from your energy supplier.

Charitable grants 

Various organisations offer grants to those in need. Find out if you can apply for money you won’t ever have to pay back.


Avatar of Rebecca Routledge

Rebecca Routledge

A qualified journalist for over 15 years with a background in financial services. Rebecca is Money Wellness’s consumer champion, helping you improve your financial wellbeing by providing information on everything from income maximisation to budgeting and saving tips.

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