October 25, 2023

Living with Dignity in 2023: the Minimum Income Standard for the UK

By Matt Padley, Co-Director of the Centre for Research and Social Policy at Loughborough University

What do people need to live with dignity in the UK today? What kind of living standards do we as a society agree that everyone in the UK should be able to achieve? How can we make sure that people don’t fall below this level?

These questions are central to research we’ve been doing on Minimum Income Standards (MIS) since 2008. Funded by JRF, our work is rooted in many hours of discussions with groups of people from different backgrounds and different types of households, asking them to reach agreement about what people need as a minimum.

The starting point for these deliberations is a publicly-determined definition of minimum living standards:

A minimum standard of living in the UK today includes, but is more than just, food, clothes and shelter. It is about having what you need in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society.

So this minimum is about meeting those core needs we all agree are necessary for survival. But as someone in an early group said:

Food, clothes and shelter keep you alive, but that’s not living.

Living with dignity is about more than just surviving; it is about being able to take part in the world around you.

What is described and detailed in MIS sets out household needs and how much people need to spend to reach this level. We set out the income different households need to live in dignity, and regularly update our research to  ensure MIS continues to capture and reflect shared views of minimum needs, shaped by shifts in social norms, technological change and by the broader political, economic and social climate.

Our latest report looks at what people need to reach MIS in 2023. The past couple of years have posed significant challenges to household incomes, with the cost of many goods and services increasing rapidly, particularly the cost of food and domestic fuel.

These increases feed through into the incomes households need to reach MIS. A single person needs to earn £29,500 to have an acceptable standard of living in 2023, compared to £25,000 in 2022. A couple with two children need to earn £50,000 between them in 2023, compared to £44,500 in 2022.

While costs have been increasing rapidly over the last 18 months, people’s incomes, both in and out of work, have not been keeping up.

A single person, out of work, receives only 30% of what they need to reach MIS; working full-time at the National Living Wage (NLW) they have 73% of what they need, but are still falling well short of MIS.

A couple with two children, receiving out-of-work benefits, have half of what they need; even with both working full-time at the NLW, they are falling short of meeting all of their minimum needs, having 95% of what they need.

With uncertainty about what’s going to happen to benefit uprating in the upcoming Autumn Statement, millions of people are facing the prospect of incomes becoming ever more inadequate over time, with much that has been taken for granted as essential to living with dignity, no longer being a given.

In the UK in 2023, we shouldn’t be living in a society where parents worry about whether or not they can send their children to school in the appropriate uniform, or where pensioners have to cut back on meals so their pension will last the week. We need a social security system that doesn’t depend on foodbanks and charities to catch those falling though the growing holes in our safety net.

These are not challenges necessarily met with short-term responses, but problems that needs long-term thinking and bolder ambition, focused on finding ways to collectively create a society in which fewer and fewer people fall below the Minimum Income Standard.

Until we do this, many people will continue to exist on incomes that don’t meet their minimum needs. Addressing this is critical to the nation’s economy and health, as well as people’s dignity.

For more articles like this straight to your inbox, sign up to our newsletter.