Personal safety nets no substitute for government support

Published: by Kate Webb

How would you keep a roof over your head if you lost your job? It’s not a question many of us like to ponder (just as we tend to ignore those issues like what exactly will happen if we fail to eat five (seven?) fruit and veg a day). But it’s a situation thousands of ordinary families unexpectedly find themselves facing every year.

Worryingly, the facts suggest many of us would struggle to keep up with rent or mortgage payments if we suddenly lost our income. New research for Shelter found that four in ten families are just one pay cheque away from being unable to afford their home.

It’s not news that Britons are struggling to save, and with incomes stagnant and living costs rising for several years many of us have been dipping into our savings just to keep ticking over. But it does mean that we’re ill-equipped to deal with a sudden change in circumstances, for example job loss or relationship breakdown.

A quarter of UK workers polled by Shelter had no savings at all and would immediately find themselves struggling to keep up with housing costs if they lost their job. Four in ten could cover less than  one month’s rent or mortgage payment, rising to six in ten after three months. Just over half of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance end up taking more than six months to get back to work, raising real concerns about how long people can support themselves for.

Perhaps we don’t think so much about how to pay for our homes if we lost our income because we assume that a safety net will be there to support us if we need it. This may seem a little complacent but it isn’t entirely unreasonable. Especially as most people are well aware that they’ve paid in to a system to support them. In fact, it’s because of this safety net that job loss rarely leads directly to homelessness in the UK (a success that we’re far too modest about).

Moreover, the majority of people don’t just assume the safety net is there, they think it ought to be there. Six in ten agree that the government is responsible for providing a decent standard of living for the unemployed, which would surely require a system for preventing homelessness.

Unfortunately continued cuts to the safety net have weakened this protection and made it harder for people to keep a roof over their head. Homeowners have to wait 13 weeks before receiving any help for mortgage interest payments, and even then the support they receive may be below their actual mortgage costs. Payments to private tenants has been cut back, meaning that many people paying average rents are not entitled to sufficient support. This problem is set to get worse when the short-term buffer for new claimants is abolished under Universal Credit.

This is why Shelter is campaigning against any further cuts to the housing safety net. The support it offers is already inadequate in many cases, and any further reductions risk pushing the system to breaking point. We all want to know that a safety net is there if life takes an unexpected turn, and that safety net has be strong enough to genuinely support people through difficult times and help them back on their feet.