The cost of living and the torn safety net

Hannah Rich, author of Theos’ latest report ‘A Torn Safety Net’, shares her thoughts on the report’s findings.

This week, Collins Dictionary announced that its word of the year for 2022 would be ‘permacrisis’, which they define “an extended period of growing instability and insecurity, especially one resulting from a series of catastrophic events”. This sense of uncertainty and insecurity is relatable for most of us; as one of the team behind the decision told the BBC, it “sums up just how truly awful 2022 has been for so many people”. The war in Ukraine, the cost of living crisis, energy bills, a looming recession, Covid–19, ongoing political upheaval at home and abroad, and even the extreme weather conditions at times have all contributed to this sense of being permanently in crisis mode.  

If insecurity is the current zeitgeist, it is fitting that it is also the focus of our new Theos report, A Torn Safety Net: How the Cost of Living Crisis Threatens Its Own Last Line of Defence.  

The report draws on 48 interviews with faith leaders, charity workers, volunteers and community members in four local authorities across England and Scotland, conducted over the course of 2022 as the economic crisis deepened. As the research progressed, the interviews tracked the scale and scope of insecurity as it affects individuals and communities. We identify four key forms of insecurity that are widely experienced: income and employment; food insecurity; housing; and migration status. While ‘permacrisis’ may be a new addition to our lexicon, our research finds that this level of chronic insecurity has been growing over the longer term. All four forms of insecurity have been on the increase far longer than the current crisis, albeit made more acute now.  

The collective impact of household insecurity is beginning to show in whole communities. It is no longer a crisis only of individual circumstances, but a systemic problem, reflected in the fraying fabric of civil society and faith groups. These institutions form a vital part of the safety net, offering security and material support to millions of people, but are themselves becoming less secure. The places we might typically turn for support during crises are not immune from this permacrisis.   

The cost of living crisis, coming on the back of the pandemic and a decade of cuts to public services, is clearly having a severe impact on organisations as well as households, with grave consequences for their ability to step in and support people. Inflation is raising the cost of basic groceries, which in turn means higher costs and reduced donations for projects like food banks and community meals. In addition, soaring energy prices are hitting community spaces, which until recently faced uncapped bills to heat and light their buildings. Coupled with this, the pandemic and its impact on volunteering patterns and financial donations is still being felt. In short, the safety net is tearing. We argue in this report that this constitutes a ‘social recession’ and this is reaching a critical point. 

As Gordon Brown and Rowan Williams write in the report’s foreword: 

“The shocking reality is that this winter, we are likely to see charities being forced to stop feeding the hungry so they can help the starving, cut back on support to the poorly housed so they can focus on the fast–rising numbers of homeless, and give up on helping the down–at–heel because their priority has to be the destitute.” 

Our research shows that things really are this acute, but also that there are means to alleviate this. It is vital that policymakers act to secure the faith and community sector not only during the current crisis, but beyond it for the long term. To this end we offer policy recommendations which focus on establishing systemic as well as individual security.  

As we demonstrate, there is a theological precedent for caring about insecurity, rooted in the Old Testament narrative of caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner – all of whom are defined by the instability and insecurity of their position in their society. However, it is also vital that we act at a systemic level, to stabilise and secure faith communities as well as individuals, if we are to weather the permacrisis with any sort of society left.

  • Hannah Rich will deliver February’s Joy in Enough talk, Wednesday 15th at 7pm on Zoom – join us!
  • Article republished with permission from Theos.

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