Poorest face a bleak winter as heating is ‘self-rationed’

New CSE report shows lowest income households go cold

1 October 2010

Households in Britain on the lowest incomes are the most likely to suffer cold homes in the winter because they cannot afford the rising cost of energy and are forced to ‘ration their heating’.

Moreover, householders do not trust the cost-cutting deals offered by energy suppliers which they fear could result in even higher costs.

These are just two of the findings of a recent report, ‘“You just have to get by” – Coping with low incomes and cold homes’, published by CSE and the University of Bristol’s Personal Finance Research Centre. The report presents the results of a national survey of the UK’s poorest households, alongside 50 in-depth interviews that reveal the details of the daily reality of living on a low-income in a British winter.

According to the report, among households with the lowest annual incomes – of £6,000 or less – 63% say that their homes are cold in the winter. Many turn the heating off for prolonged periods, heat only one room, wear outdoor clothes indoors, sit under blankets and quilts, or go to bed early. There is also a daily juggling of basic needs, such as hunting for supermarket bargains in order to make a few more pennies available for the heating when the kids come home from school. Among all low income households, single adult and lone-parent households are hit especially hard. Fuel poverty, income poverty and child poverty are inextricably linked.

The report’s authors say we should not talk the language of fairness in public policy without paying close attention to the impacts of such policy on the lives of the most deprived households in Britain.

“These households are facing rising energy costs, rising living costs, cuts in benefits and no gain from the changes to the tax threshold.” Will Anderson from CSE is one of the report’s co-authors. “This will result not only in an increase in the number of households in fuel poverty, but also an increase in the severity of hardship experienced by those who are already struggling to stay warm.”

Many interviewees expressed a determination to make ends meet despite the financial pressures of everyday life, often reflected in keen aversion to debt, which only brings a world of further trouble. Yet ‘making ends meet’ is tough when all discretionary spending (clothes, holidays) has long been cut away and still there is not enough money to both eat well and stay warm.

“The government’s recent ‘progressive’ budget will only make things worse for these households who will not gain from the rise in the tax threshold because they are already below it. As the winter approaches, low income households are at even greater risk of going cold,” warns Anderson.

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