The Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) has launched a groundbreaking report, Beyond Breaking Point: Sharing the perspective of SVP Members on the cost of living crisis, at Stormont, shedding light on the harsh realities of poverty in Northern Ireland and calling on MLAs to get back to work to meet the growing needs of the people here.
The report, compiled by SVP Northern Region’s Social Justice Committee, unveils the escalating struggles faced by families grappling with the compounding challenges of the pandemic, rising living costs, and social security cuts and changes.
The report is based on responses from 161 SVP members, illustrating a 15% response rate with broad geographical representation. Survey results emphasised the increasing complexities faced by households, with 80% of respondents meeting families dealing with multiple difficulties.
Consequently, there has been a substantial surge in calls to the charity, reaching 25,057 by the end of October 2023 alone, almost double what they were before the pandemic.
Among those SVP members surveyed, 77 per cent said the rising cost of energy was the main reason people are seeking help from the charity, the second most common request is for food.
Among its other major concerns was the increasing poverty within working households, particularly affecting individuals engaged in zero-hour contracts, receiving low pay, and dealing with childcare costs. This observation aligns with additional findings from the Department of Communities, indicating that 13% of individuals within working families in this region are living in poverty.
Even travel costs for those who do work were cited as a major concern among SVP members.
The report is a first-of-its-kind, collating the experiences and perspectives of SVP members on poverty, offering a poignant narrative of the harsh realities faced by not just those on low income but those who are working too.
SVP finds itself on the frontline of the local cost of living crisis, a fact underscored by the surge in calls to the charity in recent years. Notably, between 2020 and 2021, calls to SVP’s regional office in Belfast doubled, reaching 25,285, and further escalated by an additional 50% the subsequent year, with 37,599 calls recorded in 2022. Even in 2023, call volumes have remained persistently high, with 25,057 calls documented by the end of October.
The figures reflect the collective impact of the pandemic, the cost of living crisis, and social security cuts but today marks the first time the charity has published such a comprehensive account, bringing together the firsthand experiences of its members.
The charity is not the first organisation to highlight poverty in Northern Ireland, statistics from the Department for Communities show 306,000 people, constituting 16% of the total population in Northern Ireland, are living in poverty. Disturbingly, this includes 163,000 working-age adults, 97,000 children, and 47,000 pensioners.
Lone parents and their children face the highest risk of poverty, with 35% experiencing poverty. Single pensioners follow at 21%, and couples with children at 16%.
SVP attributes escalating food and energy prices at the root of much of this poverty, coupled with austerity measures.
It also said benefit reforms and the transfer to Universal Credit — with its subsequent five-week wait — were also major factors in growing struggles here. In total, 80% of members identified the wait as the key challenge facing those on benefits.
SVP and its members are calling for an overhaul of the benefits system, appropriate wages, removal of the Universal Credit wait, affordable childcare, funding for mental health services and adequate support for refugees and asylum seekers, as well as a new strategy for affordable housing.
It is also asking leaders here to ‘poverty proof the school day’.
Mary Waide, SVP Regional President for the Northern Region, said: “The purpose of this report is to shine a light on the cost of living crisis and poverty in Northern Ireland from the perspective of SVP and to bring our solutions to the table. In this way, the report is a call to action to our policymakers and a blueprint for ending poverty.
“Feedback from SVP members who are at the coalface of the cost of living crisis shows the depth and breadth of financial difficulties currently being experienced by far too many households. While we welcome today’s fall in inflation, the reality is that even with this drop, many families remain worse off than last year when every household received the one off energy payment.”
Mary expressed deep concern about the overwhelming despair among households, emphasising the urgent need for government intervention. She stressed the critical role of charities, stating: "Charities like SVP should be complementing government assistance, not being the first port of call for those living in poverty."
Members articulated a clear need for improvements to the benefit system, underscoring the urgency for a functioning Executive and the implementation of an Anti-Poverty Strategy. The report concludes with an urgent plea for political leadership to safeguard those facing challenges on multiple fronts, calling for immediate government intervention to prevent further hardship.
It reads, "There is an urgent need for political leadership to protect people in poverty as they face challenges on many fronts: a functioning Executive is essential to prevent further hardship. The need for an Anti-Poverty Strategy has never been more profound."
The report urged all relevant government departments to ensure a strategy is ready for immediate implementation under Section 28a of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
SVP volunteers in the Northern Region have today been awarded The King’s Award for Voluntary Service. This is the highest award a local voluntary group can receive in the UK and is equivalent to an MBE. SVP is an international charity and the largest voluntary charity in Ireland. SVP is committed to promoting self-sufficiency and working diligently for social justice.
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