The cost of living crisis is ‘severely’ affecting people accessing children’s and adults’ services, fuelling a host of issues including poverty, debt, mental ill-health and domestic conflict, social workers have warned.
The vast majority of respondents to a Community Care survey asking about the effects of the crisis said it was hitting individuals and families they support hard.
More than half (58%) said it was having a ‘severe’ impact on the lives of people accessing service, with a further 33% saying the effect was ‘significant’.
Food bank use and homelessness risks
Dozens of comments left by the 253 survey respondents, about two-thirds of whom said they worked in children’s services, made reference to rising food bank use.
Some warned that local food banks were running out of supplies due to sharply increasing demand and the wider public no longer being able to afford to donate as much.
Many others cited households facing desperate choices between heating and eating, with poverty leading to deteriorating housing conditions and, for some, the risk of homelessness. One social worker said:
[The crisis is affecting] service users massively – most were already experiencing poverty before, now they are in dire straits.”
In all, 86% of survey respondents said they expected to see a large increase in demand for services over the next 12 months as winter arrived and the crisis bit even harder. This week, energy regulator Ofgem raised its price cap for the average household to £3,549 per year from October, almost three times higher than it was a year ago.
‘Clients cancelling a service they need’
Worryingly, among practitioners working in adults’ services, almost half (48%) of respondents said they had seen a large increase in the numbers of people in receipt of council-funded care and support who were struggling to afford care charges.
Almost as many (44%) said they had seen a small increase.
“I have seen clients falling into debt, not able to pay their care charges and asking to cancel a service they need,” said one.
Another worker, based in a front door team, said they were getting “several calls every day” from people feeling suicidal due to cost of living. They said:
Elderly people are refusing to have care due to the cost, which they cannot afford alongside their bills.”
The social worker added. “We are also getting calls from people with no money for food, who need food banks, and calls from people being evicted as they cannot afford bills and rent.”
A number of respondents noted that the previous decade’s austerity policies had meant there were now far fewer services where people could get support and advice around issues such as debt management or maximising benefits.
“People are not buying medication that is required, not visiting families because they are unable to afford transport or fuel for their car, and not socialising, due to costs,” said one. “So they are often becoming very isolated.”
‘Unachievable’ need for financial support for families
A similarly bleak outlook was apparent among children’s social workers contributing to the survey.
In all 49%, told us they had seen a large increase in the number of families receiving financial support under children’s social care legislation – such as section 17 of the Children Act – in their areas. A further 37% said they had seen a small increase in the number of families in receipt of financial support. One practitioner said:
Every family known to social care needs support via section 17 – every family. It’s unachievable.”
Others said the cost of living crisis was affecting some families more than others, with one commenting that parents in low-paid work had been hit particularly hard compared with others whose incomes came exclusively from benefits.
“I am seeing lots more referrals coming through because of financial pressures,” the social worker said. “The knock-on effects [include] mental ill-health, stress, domestic abuse and abuse of children – people are struggling to manage, and feel immense shame in needing to access things like food banks due to debt.”
Besides hardship around food and fuel, social workers highlighted struggles particular to families with children, such as being unable to afford to buy school uniform or to pay for activities.
Worsening mental health for parents and children
Another children’s practitioner said they had seen a “huge rise” in mental health issues among both parents and children as stress levels soared. “This is very evident in school, in loss of concentration on learning, self-harming, thoughts of suicide and early signs of eating disorders.” The social worker said all these impacts were being seen in older primary school-aged children.
Aside from families involved with help and protection services, a number of survey respondents also highlighted how the crisis has been affecting children in care, with several noting that foster carers in their area were facing hardship.
“[Some are] handing in their notice as they can’t afford to continue with rising living costs,” said one, echoing the findings of a recent survey by the FosterWiki information and advice service. “This means children and young people having to be placed well out of county, miles away from friends and schools, loads of them without suitable placements.”
‘A current of anxiety’
Looking ahead, few social workers, regardless of their specialism, saw any cause for optimism as winter approached.
The combination of food and fuel poverty, along with people being unable to meet care charges, will have grim and inevitable knock-on effects, adults’ practitioners warned.
“[It will lead] to safeguarding concerns, self-neglect and safety issues – and an increase in hospital admissions as a result,” said one.
Several respondents pointed out that people who might previously have ‘got by’ thanks to their support networks were likely to increasingly struggle as those around them were forced to take on more paid work to support themselves.
“Unpaid care takes up a large portion of care provided to individuals in the UK,” said one. “Unpaid carers may have to go into employment or increase hours in employment due to cost of living.”
Meanwhile children’s social workers said they foresaw additional strain on family budgets, further increasing tensions in people’s homes, leading to more conflict, abuse and neglect.
“It feels like everyone is always on the verge of a crisis – but there is an underlying current of anxiety, fear and anger that seems ready to bubble to the surface,” said one children’s practitioner. “I think once the summer is over and autumn hits this will magnify massively into a much more overt presentation from families.”
Responding to the findings of Community Care’s survey, Steve Crocker, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said the cost of living crisis was “affecting households across the country, including the children and families we support and our staff”.
“These findings highlight the bleak reality for many of the children and families we work with, and the situation will only get worse in the winter months without further practical solutions from government to support families,” Crocker added.
“While local authorities up and down the country are working hard to provide services and support to their local residents to help with rising costs, we urgently need government to provide the long term solutions that are needed during this difficult time.
“We expect many more children and families will fall into poverty because of the rising costs of food, fuel and energy, yet there is no national strategy to reduce child poverty in England,” Crocker said. “Given what we know about the impact of poverty on children’s outcomes and life chances addressing it must be a priority for the new Prime Minister.”
A spokesperson for the British Association of Social Workers directed Community Care to a number of recent statements by the organisation. This included a submission to the children’s social care review that described the cost of living crisis as “a crisis for social workers [who] see the impact it has on people we work with every day”.
BASW was also a co-signatory to a recent letter to Conservative leadership candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak by a group of charities and other organisations that described the impact of the cost of living crisis on low-income households as “the gravest issue our country faces”.