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5 December 2022

Posh but poor? The return of the squeezed middle

From new food-bank users to cash-strapped professionals, middle earners are being hit hard by the rising cost of living.

By Anoosh Chakelian and Nick Ferris

In the candlelit glow of Southwark Cathedral the manager of Camden food bank, Abi Odujoko, stood up to speak. Addressing fellow food-bank workers and volunteers at the Trussell Trust network’s carol service, before the organist hit the first notes of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, he described how different this year has been.

Food-bank use is at a record high, while donations are falling, and – most shocking of all, in his view – there are now people coming in who “by their looks, you know that they’re posh; you can tell by their attitude and demeanour”. There was a ripple of recognition among the congregation, as he listed examples: a young mother of two who had until recently been in employment “practically dying of embarrassment” as she queued; a man who had “earned a lot in his life”, had an “official” sounding accent and wore “posh city clothes”.

“We see new people,” Odujoko said. “These are different kinds of people.”

This observation of middle-class people turning to food banks may be anecdotal, but there has certainly been a marked rise in the number of people in the UK using a food bank for the first time: a 40 per cent increase in first-time visitors on last year, with 320,000 people first using a food bank between April and September in 2022, according to the Trussell Trust.

“It sounds very 1 per cent, but I can’t afford to take my young kids on a summer holiday”

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Over the pandemic in particular a previously more affluent demographic began applying for Universal Credit. These near-four million new applicants were more likely than existing claimants to have been in the top fifth of earners, have more savings, own a home, be university-educated, and come from the managerial, administrative and professional occupations.

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The cost-of-living crisis is squeezing people who have never before had to live on a tight budget.

Simon, 44, a history teacher in Thames Ditton with four children, told a focus group I observed in the affluent Surrey commuter-belt town of Esher that he was avoiding switching his water heater on. He had started showering at work every day and taking his children to shower at the local swimming pool. He felt unable to afford a family holiday next year.

“It sounds very 1 per cent, and I’m still not having to count the pennies, but my savings are being eaten into,” he said. “We’re putting off conversations about a summer holiday next year. It sounds very decadent, but [I worry about disappointing my] young kids.”

“I never used my smart meter before – now I know how much it costs to put the oven on”

Zoë Howard, 51, a web developer living with her partner and teenage son in St Austell, a market town in Cornwall, said she was making “really detailed choices every day about what I spend the household budget on, which I’ve not had to do before”.

Having typically been able to afford her regular supermarket shop without adding up the cost, she now checks every price. “I’ll buy the cheapest tin of soup you can buy,” she said. “We’re not starving by any means. But we’re having to think very carefully about what we spend on shopping.”

Similarly, she never before had to check her smart meter. “Now, that’s plugged in and I’m monitoring it all the time. So I know what it costs to put the oven on, and to run the washing machine.”

Even a Conservative Party adviser told me a few months ago that his family would have to stick to one holiday abroad next year, rather than their usual two trips.

Inflation affects everyone, if not equally. Those who spend a greater proportion of their income on essentials are most affected, but others higher up the chain feel it too. Over the past two decades the median wage has stagnated, while the minimum wage has grown.

A significant number of middle-income families will fall below what is known as the “minimum income standard”, a metric that calculates the minimum income for an acceptable standard of living.

Middle-income families are facing significant tax rises over the next decade, even if higher earners will pay more. “Middle England is set for a shock,” said Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, after the Autumn Statement in November. “Perhaps it will be those on middling sorts of incomes who feel the biggest hit.”

“Threshold” households, who are just above the criteria for welfare, are particularly affected. There is less state support for households that don’t receive benefits. For example this year there was an extra £650 cost-of-living payment for Universal Credit claimants, but there are 2.3 million low-income households who don’t receive means-tested benefits, and therefore don’t qualify for such lump-sum payments.

[See also: Growth through devolution will be Labour’s election pitch

When the government’s energy bill subsidy stops being universal from April, millions who are not eligible for the subsequent, more narrowly targeted scheme will lose out. Free school meals aren’t even available to all children from families claiming Universal Credit – the income threshold is a paltry £7,400 a year.

“Even in households with two adults in full-time work, the poverty rate has doubled”

“In the design of ongoing living costs support, we’re increasingly concerned with what might happen to people in those middle-income deciles, rather than the typical concern around people who are likely to be eligible for means-tested support,” said Rachel Statham, associate director of work and the welfare state at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a progressive think tank. “We’re seeing an increasing precarity among people who are past that cliff-edge.”

The IPPR identified a rise of “no longer managing” families last year. “Even for households with two people in full-time work, the chances of being pulled into poverty have doubled,” over the past two decades, Statham said.

Rising interest rates are hitting mortgage holders, who are generally better off than renters. “Higher mortgage repayments will of course affect renters, but the immediate impact is on homeowners,” one figure involved in Labour policy observed. The latest five-year mortgage rate reported by the Bank of England was 5.42 per cent, up from 1.3 per cent a year ago.

This scenario calls to mind the “squeezed middle” – Ed Miliband’s 2010 slogan for people newly struggling in an unjust economy. Though derided at the time, the term appeared to resonate, becoming the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2011. Theresa May tried to imitate it with her “jams” (“just about managing”), as did Nick Clegg with “alarm clock heroes”.

[See also: “I’ve never relied on anyone in my life”: Meet the new Universal Credit claimants]

“Ed was really keen to get across that the problem for those at the bottom end of the income distribution was increasingly a problem for everybody,” said Marc Stears, who was an adviser to the former Labour leader at the time and now runs the University College London Policy Lab. “Part of that was the idea that people in what used to be comfortable occupations couldn’t afford to do the things they used to.”

“There’s no middle class anymore – we’ve vanished”

Having struggled to convince the commentariat (among whom there was an “incredulity that this was a problem for middle England”), Stears now feels vindicated. But while he believes it is an important theme for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, he is wary of the slogan. “There have been different efforts by people to try to get the idea across in simple terminology, but you don’t really need a snappy phrase, you need a larger story about what’s going on and what you might do about it.”

However politicians address the new squeezed middle, there is little doubt that large parts of the country are feeling more precarious than ever – from their weekly shop to the dilemma about switching the heating on.

“We were managing well before but now they’re pushing us into poverty,” said Tayyaba Siddiqui, 49, an NHS therapy assistant who is raising her 11-year-old son in Islington, north London. She hadn’t needed Universal Credit until she began working part-time, which she felt forced to do ten months ago because of the expense of childcare.

“There’s no middle class anymore, there’s only lower class and high class. The middle class has vanished.”

[See also: Nigel Farage and the hysterical right know they’ve lost]