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Living or surviving: Why we need a manifesto for living standards

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Living or surviving: Why we need a manifesto for living standards

Something has changed at Citizens Advice. At the last 3 general elections, our top advice issues were all about helping people access benefits they’re entitled to. Today, 2 of the top 3 are about the cost of living — energy problems, and food bank and emergency charitable support referrals. A decade ago, neither of these issues were in the top 10.

For all the talk of the economy from politicians, what really matters to people is if they can afford to pay their bills, cover their rent, and put food on the table. People are constantly asking themselves, can I make my household budget add up?

Christopher’s story
Christopher* works full time to support himself and his children, but still can’t make ends meet. He’s trying to balance his bills and repay his debts, but there isn’t enough money for both.

Christopher has council tax debt, and his council claim around a third of his weekly income for repayments. But this isn’t affordable, and he’s now falling behind on other essential bills. Christopher is stuck in a vicious cycle — paying down one debt, but building up others.

“It’s causing him immense hardship and distress.”

— Citizens Advice adviser who helped Christopher

But so far this election campaign, while politicians have clashed about tax, immigration, and the economy, the stories of people like Christopher have been glaringly absent.

Whichever party takes office on 5 July will need a clear plan to tackle falling living standards in their first 100 days. As manifestos start to appear this week, this is the measure we’ll be testing them against. Pointing to long-term economic growth won’t be enough. We need to see a plan to put pounds back into people’s pockets fast.

What would this look like?
We know the fiscal environment is going to be tough for the next government, and the scale of the challenge is huge. But that’s no excuse for inaction — there are things that can be done now, without breaking the bank, to start to turn the tide on living standards.

Firstly, the next government should explore ways to boost incomes for the worst off. A first step here would be to amend how benefits are calculated to bring them closer in touch with the real cost of living. There are also a whole range of system changes that could be made to help people keep more of the money they’re entitled to.

For those on low pay, the National Minimum Wage is the obvious low-cost lever that can be pulled quickly by the next government. More working people are coming to us for food bank referrals than ever before. Our advisers tell us that they see people working in cleaning, hospitality, social care, retail, and healthcare are struggling the most to make ends meet.

“Quite simply the cost of living has risen so much that clients struggle to meet even basic standards of living.”

— Citizens Advice adviser

The next government won’t solve this problem through incomes alone
They also have to tackle the runaway cost of essentials. Even with a slight drop in energy bills, millions are paying far more than they were a few years ago, and could face even higher bills come winter. Improving energy bill support so it’s more targeted at people with low incomes and high energy costs will help insulate us against future energy crises. Introducing and improving social tariffs in other essential markets — like broadband, water and insurance — would go a long way to helping people cover their bills.

The largest bill for many is housing. Private renters are the worst off here — those on low incomes spend half their whole monthly budget on rent. Top of the next government’s priority list should be finding ways to make the private rental sector more secure and affordable, through things like banning Section 21 no fault evictions, reforming Local Housing Allowance and tackling unfair rent hikes.

We’ve never helped more people who are falling into the red each month just to survive. We know this goes beyond our doors too — 5 million people are in a negative budget, where no matter what they do their income doesn’t cover their essentials. And we know it’s a top issue for voters — 63% of people say living standards or the cost of living will sway how they vote in this general election.

We’ll be looking for changes that offer a lifeline to people at the sharpest end of the living standards crisis as manifestos get published. Politicians need to prove they’re in touch with what matters to real people this election. Whether people feel they can afford to live, not just spend every penny on surviving, will be the real test of our next Prime Minister.

*Names have been changed for anonymity.

Blog reproduced from Medium:
Emer Sheehy, Principal Policy Manager, Citizens Advice