Tuesday, June 20, 2023

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NEW statement from WRC on Women’s Experience of the Cost-of-Living Crisis in NI: Research by the Women’s Regional Consortium and Ulster University with 250 women has found that the impact of the Cost-of-Living Crisis is forcing women to skip meals and go hungry to feed their children.

The decision to end the ‘Holiday Hunger Scheme’ coupled with rocketing food inflation will increase hardship and food insecurity for families. Around 96,300 children have lost £27 a fortnight.

Low-income pregnant women and those with young children are entitled to a ‘Healthy Start’ payments to help with the cost of formula, fruit, and vegetables, but just over half of those entitled to support have joined the scheme.

Women have experienced a significant squeeze on their household budgets with many struggling to afford essentials including food, fuel, and transport. The research shows that 91% of women reported difficulty in paying their bills due to price increases. Food shopping caused serious financial stress (75%) as did energy bills (73% electricity, 52% gas and 30% home heating oil).

Women also communicated anxiety about school costs (27%) which is likely to become an increasing pressure point for families over the summer period - as the cost of food remains high, there will be less income available to purchase required items.

We are calling for an urgent reversal in the decision to cut ‘Holiday Hunger’ payments and for a major take-up campaign around the Healthy Start Scheme. We are also calling for urgent reform to school uniform policy – including an increase in available support, which currently falls behind England, Scotland, and Wales.

Siobhán Harding from the Women’s Support Network said:

“Women are at crisis point. Years of austerity measures, the Covid-19 pandemic and now the Cost-of-Living crisis has created a perfect storm for women who are left to become shock absorbers of poverty in their homes. Women told us about not being able to buy basic foods including baby formula and healthy food, particularly fresh fruit and vegetables, having to use foodbanks, eating out-of-date food or going without meals altogether.”

Siobhán continued: “Many are making tortuous decisions around feeding themselves and their families, they are faced with no other choice and the stark reality is they are unable to live dignified, healthy lives. This should not and cannot be acceptable for women living in Northern Ireland. Children will soon finish school for the Summer and children will be without school meals. We are calling for the Holiday Hunger Scheme to be urgently reinstated and for the Healthy Start Scheme to be widely publicised to ensure women and children do not go hungry during the Summer months.”

Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick, Lecturer and Researcher at the School of Law, Ulster University said:

“This research very clearly demonstrates the disproportionate harm that the Cost-of-Living emergency is having on women and children. Women are being plunged into poor mental and physical health as they strive to protect their children through missing meals, getting deeper and deeper into debt, and shielding them from the significant toll that the economic crisis is taking on their lives.

“Unless the cuts to Communities and Education are reversed, women and children will go hungry this summer. The end of the Holiday Hunger scheme marks the end of crucial support for around 96,300 children in NI. This coupled with a potential reduction to the Discretionary Support Fund by the Department for Communities will increase the risk of destitution for many families who are already unfairly bearing the brunt of high inflation.”

Main Findings:

91% said they had difficulty paying their bills as a result of Cost-of-Living increases.

75% said they were having the most difficulty paying for their food shopping, 73% said electricity, 52% gas, 38% travel costs, 34% internet bills, 30% home heating oil and 27% school costs.

56% were in debt and of these 82% said they had to borrow as a result of Cost-of-Living increases.

90% felt that the Cost-of-Living Crisis had impacted on their physical or mental health or both.

Of those who had children, 78% felt that Cost-of-Living increases had negatively impacted on their children.

92% reported that Cost-of-Living increases had negatively impacted on their ability to take part in social activities.

78% said they felt cold or hungry or both as a result of Cost-of-Living increases.

41% needed to use a foodbank/other charitable support due to increases in the Cost-of-Living.

Urgent Action is needed:

Based on the research we have outlined 5 key priorities that better support women to weather the Cost-of-Living Crisis.

KEY PRIORITY 1: Women’s Centres provide trusted, local spaces for women to access help and support to address financial vulnerability and poverty in ways that work best for them. We recommend that Government should provide a long-term sustainable funding model which recognises the significant return on investment that Women’s Centres provide. This would enable them to continue and develop the vital services they provide.

Without Atlas Women’s Centre I don’t know where I’d be. It’s literally a godsend. At Christmas they helped me with food and toy parcels. They were able to give me vouchers for heating and electric too.

I come to Chrysalis Women’s Centre so I’m not putting my own heat on. I’m very grateful to the Centre it provides amazing support to me both in the things they do and being able to come here. It’s a safe and welcoming space.

KEY PRIORITY 2: The Cost-of-Living Crisis has compounded the existing crisis in mental health, as women lose opportunities for social connection and peer support due to a lack of money. There is an urgent need to invest in services to prevent long term mental illness and loss of life.

Anxiety, sleeplessness, stress, panic attacks. Due to constantly having the thought in your head about the next meal and worrying if the gas or electric is going to run out.

My anxiety has increased and my anti-depressants have been increased. There is constant worry, I am stressed all the time.

KEY PRIORITY 3: The Holiday Hunger Scheme needs to be urgently reinstated to mitigate against food insecurity for women and children during the upcoming summer holiday period. The Healthy Start Scheme needs to be increased in line with inflation and those who are entitled should be automatically enrolled onto the scheme.

For food shopping I’m cutting out a lot of things I used to buy. We’re not eating as healthy because I have to buy cheaper food. I’m buying frozen stuff and putting it in the freezer.

I’m shouting at the kids for eating and it’s awful.

The Healthy Start card isn’t enough. £17 doesn’t cover what you need. In some places baby formula is £17.50.

I didn’t realise about Healthy Start – I was entitled to help from early in my pregnancy but I can’t get it backdated now. No one told me I could be getting extra money.

KEY PRIORITY 4: The School Uniform Grant needs to be increased to reflect the average cost of a school uniform (including PE kit) which would move it closer in line with other countries in the UK. The grant should also include an allowance for school shoes.

I had to use a credit card for the kid’s school uniform this year. I struggled to pay their school uniform worse this year than any time before. The grant for a school uniform doesn’t go anywhere near the actual costs.

My son needs a new school uniform every day as he has sensory issues and there are a lot of changes. I had to buy all his school uniform, shoes, PE kit, school bag and contents. It was £345 for primary school. I literally broke down in tears because I had to get for my daughter as well and she is in secondary school.

KEY PRIORITY 5: We support the recommendations from the Independent Review of Discretionary Support and want to see increased investment in this vital fund to address rising levels of financial hardship and the impact of the Cost-of-Living Crisis.

“I’m borrowing off friends and family and then Discretionary Support. I’m constantly limited out of it.”

“It’s the everyday basics that you need to get yourself through. It’s essential to have toilet roll so you’ve no choice but to buy it. It’s not luxuries it’s the things people need to live and survive that are going up so much.”

The complete list of findings and recommendations from the ‘Women’s Experiences of the Cost-of-Living Crisis in Northern Ireland’ report published by the Women’s Regional Consortium can be found here: https://www.womensregionalconsortiumni.org.uk/research/

I attended the launch today. You can follow the thread here:

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