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A genderqueer person sitting in a hospital gown sitting in an exam room

BY Leo Hynett

Healthcare

Cost of Living Leaves Carers Skipping Meals

Carers of disabled young people are increasingly having to choose between heating and eating as rising energy costs hit poorer UK households.

JULY 08  2022

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A recent survey by Family Fund suggests that half of carers looking after disabled young people have skipped meals in the past 12 months to save money. Around a million families in the UK are raising disabled children, so these figures are staggering.

More than 90% of the families that Family Fund helps have reported struggling to pay their bills due to rising living costs. As people look towards the winter, the phrase ‘choosing between heating and eating’ has become alarmingly familiar.

 

Cost of living inequalities

The cost of living crisis is not affecting everyone equally. Those with long term conditions and disabilities, and their families, are struggling massively. Carers are doing everything they can to prioritise their loved ones, increasingly having to make the tough decision to neglect their own wellbeing to keep them safe and healthy.

New forecasts suggest energy bills will hit £3,363 a year this winter following a further price cap increase in January. Suppliers and consumer groups have ‘agreed a plan that could lead to a dedicated hotline and debt support for struggling households,’ but many are calling for the government to do more to help households.

Those who are on prepayment meters – also known as ‘pay-as-you-go’ meters – often end up paying more for their energy than those who pay metered bills via direct debit. Pre-payment meters are most common on rented and council properties as it is easier for landlords to simply hand a meter key to a new tenant than have them set up bills in their name, especially if a property is on short leases. Unfortunately, this means that those who are already paying more for their housing each month (or are in need of council support) are often the ones paying more for energy each month than people who can afford to own their homes.

People who need to run medical equipment in the home are advised that they should not be on prepayment meters as running out of money on the meter card/key will lead to electricity supply stopping until it is topped up. However, they are sometimes unavoidable if you are renting and not dealing directly with an energy company yourself.

A flat £400 energy grant is set to be issued to all households in October to help combat rising costs. This comes as an incredibly welcome replacement to the originally planned £200 that would have to be incrementally paid back. However, many have argued that the sum should be means tested in order to offer more support to those who need it most.

The poorest households will also receive an additional payment of £650, but it is inevitable that there will be people in need of this who do not meet the criteria. The rollout of this payment will begin next week and will be automatically issued to those who are eligible.

The previous efforts to support households – such as the £150 council tax rebate for those living in properties of Band D or lower – have also not reached everyone equally. In some rented properties, agencies will deal with the council themselves and then bill the tenants; this made it impossible for these tenants to claim directly, causing delays to them receiving this rebate or, in some rare cases, leading to them never receiving it at all.

 

Systemic challenges

These one-off grants are very welcome indeed, but they do little to resolve – or even acknowledge – the deeper systemic factors at play. This crisis is hitting those who can’t afford it the hardest and poorer households are increasingly finding themselves in fuel poverty, a situation where fuel costs result in them being pushed below the poverty line.

On top of the challenges with fuel costs (and the likely reliance on pre-payment meters), poorer households are faced with the fact that affordable things are rarely built to last. This is perfectly exemplified by what has become known as the Vimes Boots Index, named after a character in Terry Pratchett’s novels:

‘A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of okay for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was […] by the feel of the cobbles. […]A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.’

Quite simply: being poor is expensive. Cheaper options do not last as long and lead to greater spending in the long run, making it virtually impossible to break out of poverty.

The affordable choices are rarely the healthiest ones either. Lack of consistent access to healthy food is a major driver of health inequalities in the UK, and the fact that carers are currently being driven into food insecurity by the cost of living crisis should be sounding alarm bells in parliament.

Caring for another person is expensive, so many people have to work to supplement disability payments and their carers allowance. However, limitations on carers allowance mean that people are only eligible if their ‘earnings are £132 or less a week after tax, National Insurance and expenses.’ As is always the case with systems such as this, there are people who earn just too much to qualify but don’t earn enough to without it. This can lead to people taking on more hours – and thus losing out on time to care for their loved one – or falling into debt and having to make impossible decisions about where to save money.

Being a carer is already a significant dedication of emotional energy and these immensely tough budget decisions will only be adding to this. It is absolutely essential that carers and their loved ones are supported through this crisis and that care is taken to prevent people falling through the cracks.

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