‘Funeral Poverty’… describing a problem or hiding the cause?

The public’s attitudes towards poverty influence how the government respond to issues relating to poverty in terms of how much support they give and what action they take- that means public attitudes towards poverty directly effect the day to day lives of people living in poverty. That was acknowledged by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation who work to solve poverty. The term poverty generates such mixed views on what poverty is and also there is some scepticism as to whether is actually exists, so when the term ‘funeral poverty’ was created, while it may have conveyed the message of just how bad the situation is, it may also have provided an smoke screen to the cause of rising funeral costs.

The word poverty instantly distances people from the issue because they don’t feel it is something that relates to them. The public perception of poverty can be quite a hard one, ranging from ‘people choose’ to live poverty to it being more relating to issues in the third world than here, the word poverty makes people feel uncomfortable and those who a re living in poverty are open to being stigmatised. The attitude towards poverty mean it is easy to divert the root causes of so called ‘funeral poverty’ and place the spotlight on the poor being the issue. Hence why the social fund consistently gets cited as the problem, and while it does need reviewing and improving – not everyone who struggles to pay for a funeral are claiming benefits. This narrow focus then risks other groups going unnoticed who face financial hardship because of the cost of funerals and while the focus is on the poor – it isn’t on the the industry pushing up the prices.

In an interview with Graham Liver on BBC Radio Lancashire on a segment talking about the cost of funerals Mona Patel from the Royal London Insurance Company (who have produced the Funeral Cost Index for the last number of years and who sell funeral policies and life insurance) said this “It’s hard to come to any other conclusion that the Governments Social Fund, which actually is suppose to support the poorest families with funeral costs, is just inadequate. It is not doing the job it was intended to do. It’s hard to come to any other conclusion that the Governments Social Fund, which actually is suppose to support the poorest families with funeral costs, is just inadequate. It is not doing the job it was intended to do.” Instead of the discussion being about the high prices being charged and why, the focus of the conversation remained on the poorest families on benefits and the Social Fund, leaving out a lot of people who are genuinely effected by the cost of funerals and no questions being asked about the funeral industry.

Who are the people that are significantly adversely effected by the cost of funerals?

  • People in receipt of: Pension Credit, Universal Credit, Income Support, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit (which includes the disability element) , Housing Benefit. These are the eligible benefits for the social fund, however not everyone is helped – in 2017/2018 only 25,500 claims are awarded out of the 40,800 applications.
  • Claimants of Working Tax Credit without the disability element: Working Tax Credit is designed to top up earnings for people on low income but if they do not receive the disability element then they will not be eligible for financial help from the Social Fund and there is no financial help available. People receiving Working Tax Credits are still on a low income.
  • Students: while it is unclear exactly how many, it is thought that at least 2 – 3 students a year per University experience a financial hardship due to a bereavement. There is no financial support for students at all if they are left responsible for funeral costs, and the effect of the bereavement – often a change of circumstances too – and the financial burden of funeral costs has wider reaching cost implications. They may have to drop out of that year of their course and return to restart it at a later date in order to complete their studies – they still pay for the year that they have dropped out plus the re-take year and any year remaining to complete their course. This means that their degree is costing them for 4 years of study instead of the typical 3 – that can amount to an extra £16000 of student debt, because they were bereaved.
  • Young People: when you are in your late teens or early 20’s you really are not thinking about a parent dying. For young people who have left the education system and are trying to make their way in the world, normally on lower rates of pay due to age and lack of experience, they are not typically financially secure. In the modern families it isn’t unusual for there to be one parent and in those cases the next of kin are their children. When young people like this find themselves in the position of arranging a funeral for a parent, typically the death has been unexpected (sudden) – which poses unique challenges for anyone but this is then compounded by having to pay for a funeral. There is no financial help available for young people in this situation.
  • People on low incomes who do not qualify for benefits: there is no financial help for people on low incomes who do not claim benefits. Hard working people who just earn slightly over the base line for help with income support type benefits or who do not fit the criteria in other ways, for example single people with no dependent children in their care.
  • Carers: People who care for a partner or relative, tend to be on low income as a lot of people either change their work to fir their caring responsibility and loosing income or they have to give up work entirely. Cares Allowance (£64 per week) is claimed by 862,572 people of which 627,216 are women. Carers claim carers allowance if they are unable work long enough to earn more than £123 per week after tax. This means that they have an income of £190 per week or less. There is no financial help available to carers for funeral costs.

Social fund applicants amount to around 7% of funerals carried out in the UK. In terms of the types of people accessing the social fund out of the 600,000 deaths in 2017 – 2018, 40,800 people applied to the fund for assistance, with 25,500 receiving payments – among the lowest group that received awards were unemployed people, who received 9.9% of awards and among the highest groups were pensioners on Pension Credit who received 30.7% of awards. That leaves 15,300 people who are definitely struggling but didn’t get the help.

While the Social Fund Funeral Expenses Payment Scheme does need reform and that is without doubt, but narrowing the view onto it being a purely a poverty issue is potentially driving the ‘them and us’ detachment from the problem, keeping the public support for people who can’t afford funerals low enough to keep the action taken by government low. Have we missing the bigger picture? That the costs of funerals have risen twice the rate of inflation for the last 14 years with the and according to the Competitions and Market Authority’s Final Report states that they have found evidence that “for a considerable number of years the largest firms of funeral directors have implemented consistently large annual price increases, without reference to underlying operating cost pressures.”

Poorer people are not the cause of ‘funeral poverty’ they are truly the victims of it.