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Destitution in the UK

14 December 2023

Recent Verian data shows that destitution is no longer a rare occurrence in the UK.

The latest Destitution in the UK Study, conducted by Verian in partnership with Heriot-Watt University, and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, shows that there has been a large increase in the number of people experiencing destitution over the last few years. In 2022 around 1.8 million households, containing around 3.8 million people, were unable to afford the essentials that they needed to stay warm, dry, clean, and fed at some point during the year. This is around two-and-a-half times as many as in 2017.

Individuals counted as destitute if they lacked access to two or more out of six basic essentials in the month before we interviewed them (shelter, food, heating, lighting, clothing or basic toiletries) or had an extremely low or no income such that they could not afford the items. Given this focus on severe forms of poverty, it is particularly concerning that in 2022 more than one million children experienced times where they did not have the basics that they needed to remain healthy.

As it is very difficult to quantify the scale and impact of destitution in the UK, this study provides a vital snapshot of experiences of extreme material hardship. But conducting research with this audience poses significant challenges. The most destitute in UK society experience a multitude of inequalities and disadvantage and are routinely missed by household surveys because of their living situations, language barriers or disability. Overcoming these barriers required a flexible fieldwork approach. To this end, we provided paper questionnaires in 25 languages and respondents were also able to take part online or via telephone.

The questionnaire was administered in partnership with a wide range of voluntary services including food banks, churches, soup runs, asylum services, and hostels. The fieldwork approach, including fieldwork timing and the languages covered, was adapted to suit each individual service. Where appropriate Verian provided interviewers to administer the survey.

The interviewing team were instrumental in maximising the number of responses. Interviewers supported fieldwork in a range of settings including busy foodbanks, day centres and even a soup kitchen hosted in a car park. They invited service users to take part and, if needed, helped respondents to complete the questionnaire. This substantially increased coverage among non-readers and those with disabilities who would otherwise have been excluded.

Despite working in hectic and distracting environments the interviewers sensitively and effectively engaged this highly vulnerable audience. Their ability to maximise response rates by adapting to the many and varied circumstances of each service was reflected in feedback by a service manager in Belfast who said the interviewers made the process “easy and unobtrusive for the volunteers and clients”.

In September the interviewing team’s remarkable work was recognised by the Market Research Society which awarded the team ‘Best Data Collection - Interviewer administered’ in the 2023 Operations Awards.

The Verian team comprised of Alex Thornton, Charlotte Saunders, Ciara Cremin, Sabrina Lynch, Hemali Vadgama, and Naomi Raybe.

Charlotte Saunders

Associate Director

United Kingdom


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