Nearly 18% of Suffolk people living in poverty, says new report
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More than 135,000 people in Suffolk are living in poverty - with workers in the county taking home nearly £40 per week less than others in England.
Suffolk County Council says that equates to 17.77% of the county's population in relative poverty pre-pandemic – a figure that includes 31,000 children and nearly 34,000 pensioners.
A new report says Covid-19 has “further increased the number of people in Suffolk living in poverty” and the cost-of-living crisis, which has seen increases for things like fuel, food, energy, council tax and National Insurance, will have exacerbated that further.
According to the authority, the number of youngsters claiming Free School Meals has jumped from 16,087 in February 2020 to 21,381 in December 2021, while an extra 30,000 people were on Universal Credit between February 2020 and March this year. It means 8.8% of Suffolk’s population is now on Universal Credit.
Figures for the end of January last year found that the average gross weekly pay for Suffolk was £573.60 – nearly £40 per week less than the England average and £55 below the East of England average.
Suffolk County Council’s scrutiny committee will next week look at the issue, and consider the council’s yet-to-be published poverty strategy.
Bobby Bennett, Conservative county cabinet member for equality and communities, said: “The Tackling Poverty Action Plan brings together the work that is already being done across Suffolk to tackle the impact of poverty. It also outlines what else needs to be done.
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“The plan draws on the expertise of people in Suffolk who have experienced poverty and from front line organisations who offer help and support.
“The impact of Covid and global issues have greatly accelerated the importance of the plan, and we continue to work hard with our partners to offer the right support.”
Among actions in the short term action plan are a £1.1million underwriting of the Suffolk Advice and Support Service and Local Welfare Assistance Scheme from Suffolk Public Sector Leaders to continue through 2022/23, and pilot grant schemes with voluntary organisations on tackling poverty and overcoming the barriers to escaping poverty.
Elsewhere, the council has commissioned Healthwatch Suffolk to work with those who have a lived experience of poverty on an Experts by Experience scheme to help come up with solutions, due to start within the next few months, while poverty awareness training for public sector workers is also earmarked.
But Andrew Stringer from the opposition Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent group said “radical action” is needed to avoid more families falling into poverty.
“Two of the main factors driving food poverty in Suffolk are the cost-of-living crisis, and the cutting of Universal Credit. The report states a ‘readjustment’ of Universal Credit, but frankly this was a cut to the vital life support needed by those who have been devastatingly affected by the pandemic and a generation of Conservative policy,” he said.
“Both these factors could be greatly influenced by decisions made by our leaders in Suffolk, it has been a Conservative policy to choose not doing enough for too long.
“Insulation should have been prioritised, green energy should have been invested in, better signposting of support should have been implemented, wages in low-paying but necessary sectors should have increased.”
Jack Abbott, former Labour councillor at the county council, said: “These are stark figures which show the devastating scale of poverty across Suffolk, even before the pandemic began. We know the situation has worsened considerably since, with many families struggling to make ends meet amid rising prices and taxes.
“We have been waiting for two years for Suffolk County Council’s food poverty strategy to be published. I hope that, despite the major delays, we will finally see a detailed, proactive and coordinated plan to tackle the causes of poverty.”