April 30, 2024

The cost of living emergency hasn’t gone away

by Hannah Paylor, Carnegie UK

This time last year, the British public was invited to join a “chorus of millions” by swearing allegiance to the King during his forthcoming Coronation. Lewis Capaldi debuted at number one in the charts with “Wish You the Best”, and Dominic Rabb resigned from Sunak’s government after an investigation into bullying.

These news stories provide a flavour of the narrative of life in the upper echelons of British society in spring 2023. But behind closed doors, many ordinary people were struggling with a different reality.  

“I’m freezing cold to the point of feeling ill, persistently checking my outgoings to the point of obsession, and sitting at home in the dark, quite miserable. I can barely afford food and medicine, and even though I am ill, I am scared to turn on the heating. We have to find money to travel to hospital which means we have to eat from the food bank” 

“Missing meals for long periods is taking a toll on my health. I was already at the bottom… I’m now further beyond it.” 

“I’m frightened to think what is next.” 

These are the kinds of concerns that were occupying people’s minds as they did the school run, got on the bus to work, or shopped for their tea. We know, because this time last year, Carnegie UK published research highlighting the reality of how a long winter of rising living costs was impacting collective wellbeing.  

We found that increased living costs had become an all-consuming part of people’s lives – causing anxiety, stress and even impacting relationships. Higher costs, and the associated worry, were also affecting peoples’ work and school performance. The consequences were significant – one in six people were less able to exercise; two in six less able to afford a healthy diet; and three in every six were much less able to take part in ‘normal’ life than they were in winter 2022 – simple things like eating out or going to the cinema had been reined in. 

After a day analysing the survey responses for this research, I vividly remember sitting on a bus and overhearing a man on the phone with his friend, trying to convince him that there was no shame in going to a foodbank for help. He went on to explain that he himself was off home to sit alone with a pack of tinnies because he couldn’t afford to go and see his pals at the pub. The hardship was everywhere, if you opened your eyes (and ears) to it.  

Now, in 2024, it seems as though fewer people are talking about the rising cost of living. But has anything really changed? Or have we just become numb to this ongoing reality? It’s telling that one of the most searched questions in relation to this topic on Google is “Will the cost of living ever go down in the UK?”.  

Despite inflation falling, prices are still rising. UK consumer prices, as measured by the Consumer Prices Index (CPI), were 3.4% higher in February 2024 than a year ago. This is disproportionately impacting families on low incomes. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that prices for energy, food and housing have risen at record rates over the last two and a half years, and that relative poverty remains stubbornly high for many families living in the UK.  

For those families, and everyone else struggling with high prices, the emergency is certainly not over. This should be a wake-up call to governments at all levels. The research we published last year, and the stark reality that nothing has really changed, reinforces the message that the current approach to public policy is not working.