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Insecurity and the cost of living

Insecurity and the cost of living

Hannah Rich shares early insights from current Theos research on faith and economic insecurity. 17/05/2022

Over the past six months, the ‘cost of living’ has gone from a technical phrase used by economists, to something we hear multiple times a day in the context of an acute crisis. Consumer price inflation has continued to rise to its highest level in almost 30 years. Energy bills have rocketed, due in part to the war in Ukraine and associated instability. A survey by the Food Foundation found that in April, one in seven adults in the UK had skipped meals or routinely gone without food, a figure that has risen by 57% since January. The Bank of England recently issued a warning that the UK economy will shrink this year, with interest rates being raised for a fourth consecutive time. All this augurs a likely recession in the coming months.  

It feels like another strand of our economic security net has frayed. If the economy is a game of Kerplunk, then yet another one of the sticks precariously holding up our collective marbles has been pulled out. But the current cost of living crisis and its consequences are far from child’s play.  

It is, therefore, an auspicious time to be conducting a research project on the impact of insecurity on faith, community and volunteering. Since the beginning of the year, my Theos colleague Simon Perfect and I have been researching how precarity affects the way in which people engage with faith communities and build spiritual capital. We set out to explore the ways faith communities address precarious or insecure material circumstances and what it means for congregational life.  

What does it look like, for example, to hold community together when the majority of people in a congregation are on zero–hours contracts or in shift work and their time isn’t fully their own? And how do faith leaders meet the spiritual needs of displaced migrants and asylum seekers, who might only be living in a particular area for a brief period of time until the Home Office relocates them? If someone’s economic life is precarious, does that mean their spiritual life also is – or do faith communities act as anchoring points of stability when little else can? 

These were, and to some extent still are, the guiding questions of our work. But they are also the basis of a project conceived before the cost of living had reached the point of crisis. As we have gone on, the notion of economic insecurity has ballooned and become far more wide–reaching than we might have imagined a year ago. Keeping track of the many forms this takes, from employment, to health, income to housing, has proved difficult.  

It was an evolving conversation already, with definitions and measurements themselves fittingly insecure. Guy Standing’s seminal book The Precariat, which coined or at least popularised the term, was published in 2011, when the surface of the gig economy had barely been scratched, before either Uber or Deliveroo were even operating in the UK. The labour market dynamics that contribute to precarity and insecurity have only deepened since. The number of workers on zero–hours contracts in the UK increased fivefold from 190,000 in 2011 to 990,000 in 2020.  

When the cost of living crisis began, the pandemic had already revealed the many layers of precarity within the economy, and their public health consequences. Those with an income of less than £20,000, or with less than £100 savings, were three times less likely to say they could successfully self–isolate if required to. Nearly a third of care workers said that they would struggle to take time off in the event of illness, due to financial insecurity. But in almost every facet of society, from housing to employment, things feel less secure than they did even a matter of months ago.  

Where we planned to explore the consequences of precarious living circumstances for people’s spirituality and ability to commit to faith communities, conversations have quickly turned to how acute material insecurity is being felt by congregation members and church leaders alike. More than thirty interviews with members of faith communities and charity workers across the country so far have mapped the spiralling insecurity affecting the whole country. For some, the chance to reflect theologically on this is inextricable from the practical reality in front of them.  

As Jon Miles, senior development worker for Transforming Communities Together, a faith–based charity in the West Midlands put it when we spoke back in February, “the sense is that as a country, although we’re being told lots of feel–good stories, the reality on the ground is that the whole thing feels quite uncertain. You’ve got that going on within communities. It has the potential to change the narrative slightly around attitudes to money and the poor, because a lot more people are feeling uncertain, not least when you have the contrast with extreme displays of wealth as well.” 

Those households and individuals who still feel economically secure are by far the minority. The ‘precariat’ may still exist as a group as the extreme margin of the economy, but to identify those at risk of joining it is trickier, when there is barely a community in the community unaffected by ballooning economic insecurity. According to Miles, “the resilience that people might have had to deal with economic challenges, challenges around personal finances, housing situation and employment, and their broader support structures and social resilience to those have also been eaten away. Stuff they might have coped with fine or better under ‘normal’ circumstances, they can’t now.”  

The changing shape of employment and the economy has brought a whole swathe of people who have never had to grapple with financial difficulties before into the mix. The group of people a couple of pay cheques away from losing their homes is ever larger as energy bills have risen, but the number of compounding factors makes it harder to model or identify who is deemed economically precarious. If your weekly shop was already held together by supermarket yellow stickers at the start of the year, there is little room for manoeuvre as things get tighter. People who were already experts in managing limited finances – who had perfected their skills of Kerplunk, if you like – are now finding that that is no longer enough. Even Martin Lewis, the doyen of money saving and clever personal finances, recently admitted he was “virtually out of tools to help people”.  

Research by the RSA defines economic security as “the degree of confidence that a person can have in maintaining a decent quality of life, now and in the future, given their economic and financial circumstances,” and the ‘future’ aspect of this is critical too. Even if you are comfortable enough to have absorbed the recent increase in energy prices into your household budget, that is still no guarantee you will be able to do so when they rise again in the autumn. A debt advice worker told us how their first port of call in supporting people used to be to help them find the best possible energy deal to reduce their outgoings, but that that is now “an absolute joke”. 

In this regard, economic insecurity is qualitatively distinct from poverty or deprivation, as one community activist in a town in the North West of England articulated. Her community is classed among the most deprived in the country, and ranks poorly for community wellbeing, and yet this does not automatically equate to being the most insecure. The two largest employers in the town are anchor institutions offering low–paid but stable employment. The social housing stock is still run by the council and is plentiful. Life feels tough there, she said, but until recently has not necessarily felt insecure, because it is a common experience: “I lived in London for years and housing insecurity was a massive thing and so directly related to the experience of poverty there in a way that just isn’t the case here…. It’s interesting because I’ve always thought of poverty as related to precariousness, and yet there’s almost something quite secure about generational poverty.” 

The practical consequences of all this for faith communities is perhaps best illustrated in the smallest of details and anecdotes. One church minister in inner city Glasgow described how the number of pastoral home visits he is asked to make has dwindled recently. Even accounting for social distancing and post–pandemic nervousness, he sensed this wasn’t normal. ‘Talking to people,’ he said, ‘it has emerged that maybe they can’t afford the heating and they don’t want other people in the church community to know that. So instead I’ll say, ‘let’s go for a cup of tea in the Morrisons’ cafe’ or ‘let’s have a coffee in the church’. This is in the context of a community and congregation in which foodbanks have become a normal part of life to the point where local supermarkets even operate them.  

Opening church halls and community centres as warm spaces for those struggling to heat their homes is a welcome stopgap, but it relies on the church being able to pay its own gas and electric bills – and as we are observing in our research, this is no longer a given.  

The crisis is biting not only at an individual or household level; the whole charity sector is feeling the effects of growing economic instability. According to sector leaders, a third of charities fear they will struggle to survive as a result of the crisis. 60% of those surveyed by the Charities Aid Foundation say they are worried that people will have less money to donate to charity, and 70% are concerned about a rising demand from service users. Squeezed personal finances and rising organisational overheads at a time when funders are also tightening their purse strings all makes for a perfect storm for charities and community groups.  

The co–ordinator of one project – a soup kitchen providing meals to people in Wolverhampton city centre – spoke about the growing challenge of finding affordable premises to operate from, having had to leave two different venues in the course of the pandemic. The project was initially based in the building of a church which subsequently shut, then was helped by a local café which has recently closed down too: “It’s that thing that if you’re homeless, you can’t get a bank account, but if you can’t get a job, you can’t get a home. It’s the same for us as a project, really. I haven’t got premises so when I ask for funding, I can’t give people a registered address, which makes it difficult.” 

Back in spring 2020, few factored into their funding calculations quite how long the Covid–19 pandemic would last, nor could have foreseen the global and national events that have led to the current cost of living crisis. As a result, some funders over–committed in the early days of the pandemic and now have restricted resources left for the recovery phase. The same is true of volunteer capacity. The glut of mutual aid groups and community support that proliferated at the beginning of the pandemic is not easily sustainable through back–to–back crises. As many stalwart volunteers were forced into retirement by the need to shield, people on furlough or temporarily out of work picked up the pieces, and we are only now beginning to see the lay of land post–lockdown.  

“The whole world is in a terrible state o’ chassis,” my grandad was fond of saying, quoting the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey in the final line of his 1924 work Juno and the Paycock. The line is uttered by Jack Boyle, having lost his final sixpence at the end of a sorry saga of financial struggle and family breakdown. Grandad used to employ it melodramatically for everything from there being no milk in the fridge to the genuinely chaotic state of world of affairs. But reading current economic forecasts and hearing stories of how the crisis is affecting communities put me in mind of this; more than ever, it does seem that all of us – ‘the whole world’ – are in a state of economic chaos or instability. But for now, at least, faith communities and charities are a steady ship in that storm. 

 


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 Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘Growing Good’ (2020).

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Posted 17 May 2022

Cost of living, Economy, Faith, Poverty, Precarity

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