If you were trying to establish the minimum housing space that families require in Britain today, how useful do you think it would be to see how many people you could fit into a red telephone box? This may seem a really stupid question. But it pretty much equates to what various journalists have been doing in recent months when they challenge themselves to survive on a few pounds a day, and think that this will help inform the welfare debate.
Such exercises are misguided because the big question about living standards in Britain today is not simply about what you need in order to stay alive. Failing to die of malnutrition is very different from living life at an acceptable level. This is well understood by members of the public, even if not by journalists. And that is why research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the Minimum Income Standard is so important. The people taking part in our research are asked what everyone should be able to buy to ensure they have an acceptable standard of living in the UK today. They readily understand the distinction. One participant articulated it succinctly: “Food and shelter keeps you alive: it doesn’t make you live”.
All this helps explain why there’s no contradiction between being able to live on £53 a week (“if I had to, I would”, said Iain Duncan Smith) and needing over three times that amount to live at an acceptable level as defined by members of the public (our latest Minimum Income Standard update). The £71.70 that Income Support pays falls very far short of MIS. It is simply not possible to live adequately on £10 a day, week in week out, to cover short and long term expenses including food, gas bills, electricity bills, water bills, clothes, shoes, toothpaste, a sofa, cooking utensils, a washing machine, a wardrobe, plates, haircuts, a fridge, toilet paper, a computer, an internet connection, bus fares, a TV license and all those dozens of other items that most of us take for granted as regular payments essential for everyday living.
It would be futile to suggest that the £71.70 Income Support level should be increased overnight to £185, the amount needed to buy all these things according to the research. But the yawning gap between what benefits pay and what people really need in order to afford the essentials of life is at the very least an argument against making things even worse. In April, the worst-off people in Britain faced the first explicit absolute cut in their living standards since the 1930s, as the government cut the link between inflation and benefit up-ratings. All sorts of political justifications have been given for this, but the evidence clearly puts the lie to the idea that people can live at a perfectly acceptable level on the levels that our social “safety net” currently provides.
Donald Hirsch is Director at the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University. He wrote the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s annual Minimum Income Standard report.