Benefits are too low to live on, especially when we are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.  

As the chancellor Jeremy Hunt prepares his autumn statement, he needs to recommit to supporting families through the winter – not only by bringing down inflation, but also by boosting incomes.  

Alarm bells are ringing at the charities I work with, which provide advice and support to people across Norfolk.

Across our network, we are seeing a record level of demand for our services, providing advice on issues like debt and housing, and connecting people with immediate support like food parcels and warm spaces.  

We have all felt the impact of the skyrocketing cost of essentials over the past two years.

Supermarkets, energy and water companies, landlords and mortgage lenders have implemented huge rises as their own costs spiral.

We are paying on average 70pc more for our energy than we were two years ago. And in the past year alone, the average water bill has risen by nearly 11pc, whilst rents in the region have increased by an average of 5.4pc.  

For disabled people, including those with long-term illnesses, there are essential extra costs such as prescriptions and maintaining equipment for their condition. 

Eastern Daily Press:

Government support last winter in the form of one-off payments, was welcome, and it helped.

The Trussell Trust and Citizens Advice both reported temporary drops in requests for support immediately after the cost-of-living support payments were made.  

But one-off payments do not make up for permanently higher prices or address the fact that the level of state support is far below the cost of essentials. 

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust estimates that Universal Credit payments are currently £35 per week lower than the minimum amount needed to cover life’s essentials, for a single adult over the age of 25. The gap is bigger for younger adults and for couples.  

Eastern Daily Press: Ruth Stokes, campaigns officer for Norfolk Community Advice Network (NCAN)

Other benefits are set far too low as well. Local Housing Allowance has been frozen since 2020, even though rents have shot up since then.  

The result is that more and more people are being pushed into debt by food, energy and water bills, housing costs and council tax that they simply don’t have the money to pay for.

Citizens Advice report that more than half of the people who turn to them for debt advice have a "negative budget", when their monthly income is not even enough to pay their essential bills.  

As the demands from debt collectors become overwhelming, advisers like the team at Norfolk Community Law Service, can support people to write off unaffordable debts.

But more of the people they are helping through this long, complicated process, get to the end only to begin the cycle again.

Even without debt repayments, the money coming in simply does not go far enough.  

We all deserve to have a safety net to catch us if something goes wrong, and nobody benefits when the level of support is too low to live on.  

Being trapped in a cycle of debt means living in a home you cannot afford to heat and skipping meals, your physical and mental health deteriorating as life feels out of control.

These conditions make it harder for people to keep or to find a job, if they are even able to work.   

As inflation falls, the Chancellor will be tempted to use his autumn statement to tell us the worst is over.

Announcements over the past week suggest there will be a fresh attack on the meagre support provided to disabled people.

There are even rumours of a tax giveaway for the wealthiest families.

But unless we make sure that everybody’s finances - particularly the lowest income households - are on a sustainable footing, there can be no end to this crisis.  

Ruth Stokes is campaigns officer for Norfolk Community Advice Network (NCAN), a Norfolk-wide partnership of advice and community experts, including local branches of Age UK, Shelter, Citizen’s Advice, the Mancroft Advice Project and Norfolk Community Law Service.