MORECAMBE, England — A dire and potentially deadly humanitarian emergency is endangering millions across Britain.
It is playing out as the seats of politics and power are reeling from months of chaos, farce and opulent pageantry. The ruling Conservative Party has busied itself with internecine political warfare, cycling through the scandal-plagued Boris Johnson and the historically brief Liz Truss before settling on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, an ex-Goldman Sachs banker worth $800 million. Amidst it all was the gold-plated weeklong mourning period for the United Kingdom's longest-reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
More than 200 miles north of London, in seaside Morecambe, Dusty Thomas says he spends many of his days quietly starving. He is 60, a veteran of the 1982 Falklands war and the sectarian “Troubles” in Northern Ireland.
“Sometimes I’ve gone two or three days without food,” he said, huddled under a cartoon-themed blanket in his chilly first floor home just outside of town, where the heat hasn’t been switched on in three years. “A few times I’ve used tricks like drinking quite a lot of vinegar, which shrinks the sides of your stomach and takes your appetite away.”
Thomas is not alone.
Britain is the world’s sixth-largest economy, a top-tier industrialized power that still sees itself as a cradle of the postwar welfare state. But its stagnant economy has likely just entered what the Bank of England says could be the longest recession and sharpest drop in living standards on record, and it’s the only G-7 nation whose GDP is still lower than before the pandemic. Britain once compared itself to giants like France and Germany; today many of its metrics more closely resemble Eastern Europe’s weaker economies.
The financial calamity enveloping the U.K. is so widespread that there are few escaping its pull.
One in 6 British households are on social security checks, and almost a third of British children live in poverty, government figures show. One in 4 are facing financial difficulty or are already mired in it, and almost 1 in 10 have missed paying bills, according to the Financial Conduct Authority regulator.
This nationwide crisis is driven by spiraling food and energy prices, plummeting wages and crumbling public services. Coupled with months of industrial strikes that have often crippled institutions from the railroads to the courthouses, Britain in 2022 is a place where, for millions of people, everything feels like it’s broken — and is about to get worse this winter.
In the 12 months to March this year, 2.1 million emergency food packages were distributed by a growing network of more than 2,000 food banks — an increase of some 1 million from 2014-15, according to the coordinating charity, the Trussell Trust.
Prime ministers Johnson, Truss and Sunak did not trigger this crisis; the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine have caused inflation and supply-chain nightmares in the United States and elsewhere, too. But critics say the Conservatives’ 12 years in power — a decade of austerity policies followed by Brexit — have weakened the U.K. and made it particularly ill-prepared to deal with shocks.
During her brief 49 days in office, Truss attempted to reverse this malaise with a menu of hard-line free-marketeer tax cuts that spooked markets and spelled her downfall. Now, Sunak has announced a dramatic about-face from his predecessor: a suite of tax rises and budget cuts to try to staunch the bleeding. (The Conservative Party did not respond to an emailed request for comment.)
“I don’t doubt for one minute that people are going to die from malnourishment and hypothermia this winter,” said Helen Greatorex, the no-nonsense CEO of Citizens Advice North Lancashire, a charity that advises people in crisis and often refers them to the food bank in Morecambe. “That’s just how bad things have become.”
Few places illustrate this crisis as starkly as parts of Morecambe, a former bustling seaside town nestled on England’s northwest coast, which today includes some of the country’s most deprived streets in terms of jobs, wages and education.
Dusty and Allison
Here and across the country, millions of working families with cars and mortgages are struggling to stay afloat; teachers worry more about feeding students than educating them; and proud but desperate people are taking extreme action simply to stay alive — let alone with dignity.
Among them is Thomas, whose story isn’t rare. He is on public benefits for a range of physical and mental health issues, from diabetes to post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in the armed forces.
But rising costs mean these benefits no longer cover the basics. Thomas paints a bleak picture.
“There’s no end in sight,” he said. “Nothing is going to get better for me. I’ve got nothing to look forward to.”
Poverty is closely linked to an increase in mental and physical health problems, according to the Centre for Mental Health charity. Story after story in Morecambe bears this out.
Across town, in a top-floor apartment in a converted house, aspiring journalist Allison Tyson was wrapped in a thick coat and scarf, going through her meals for the next few days: eight sachets of store-brand instant soup costing 90 pence (around $1).
“They’ll last me for about three days,” Tyson, 44, said as she spread out the silver packets on the stovetop of her kitchenette. “I just can’t afford” any more.
Tyson ended up in a women’s refuge last year after a difficult situation between her husband and seven children that she prefers to keep vague. Now in her own place, she lives off a range of social security payments including housing and disability-related benefits.
Every worker in the charity sector here will tell you the tabloid cliché of benefits cheats taking liberties is an extreme rarity.
“It’s just so demeaning,” Tyson said about claiming money off the state.
Morecambe Bay Foodbank
Morecambe’s rise and fall echoes Britain’s own journey from empire to declining geopolitical middleweight.
Between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s, when the industrial revolution made Britain the most powerful nation in the world, Morecambe’s guest houses were bursting with vacationers. However, in the postwar years, as Britain began to fade in economic and political stature, so did Morecambe, as cheap package deals lured British travelers away from domestic holiday spots to Spain and elsewhere in Europe.
Today, on Morecambe’s sweeping promenade, the mild fall sunshine illuminates a breathtaking view across the bay, with the hazy, storybook outlines of the Lake District’s mountains in the distance. In the shade, just one street back from the seafront, however, the brisk temperatures reflect the other side of this town and indeed Britain itself.
Like many regional towns, Morecambe is much whiter and more homogeneous than Britain as a whole; the wider Lancaster region is more than 95% white, compared with 85% across England.
But it has a similar economic diversity as the U.K., from the affluent neighboring village of Heysham to Morecambe's peeling West End. This was once known as the “Best End” in its resort heyday but today ranks 34th highest out of almost 35,000 neighborhoods in England’s official multiple deprivation indices, based on jobs, wages, education and other metrics. On the ground, that translates to rows of vacant stores and century-old townhouses now used as temporary dwellings for those otherwise homeless.
It’s one of many towns and cities nationwide where vulnerable people are being failed, and where an army of workers and volunteers struggle to fill a widening gap. Among them is Joanna Young, service development director for Citizens Advice North Lancashire, which covers Morecambe.
In the 1990s, Young said, people would seek advice from her organization about faulty toasters and vacation mix-ups. Now they mostly arrive on the brink of destitution.
They are “using credit to pay for basics like food, heating and hygiene, with no earthly way to pay off their debts,” said Young, a well-spoken former marketing consultant who moved up north to follow her academic husband after a stint in Colorado.
Staff here say they noticed a shift in 2016, when Morecambe became a pilot region for Britain’s new “Universal Credit” social security system. This simplified the complex benefits process, but it also introduced a waiting period of six weeks until the first payment — during which time many people slipped further into crisis.
Citizens Advice, a nationwide charity that helps people with debt, housing and other problems, often has no option but to refer people to the Morecambe Bay Foodbank. It’s one of more than 2,000 across the country that accepts, sorts and distributes donated food to local people in need. Young is also a food bank trustee, and she gives a tour of the operation that’s run out of a former flour warehouse.
Its white paneled vaults are filled with crates of pasta, tinned soup, baby formula and other staples, 20 tons at any one time. They also take donations for dog and cat food; staff explain some people will go hungry while feeding their pets before themselves.
But these food-bank workers say they are already seeing a drop in donations from the public as food prices soar, with pasta and cooking oil costing 60% more than they did a year ago.
Moreover, average bills for electricity and home-heating natural gas have doubled and could rise further in April, meaning many simply cannot afford to fire up their natural-gas powered stoves.
“At the moment we are asking people to donate microwave meals,” said Briony Scott, the food bank’s manager, a jovial Northern Irish woman in a high-visibility jacket. “If you can’t cook the food, I might as well give you a rock for your head.”
In the U.S., soup kitchens are often seen as a heart-warming example of community spirit. That feeling is not widely shared here.
“We don’t think anyone should have to use food banks,” said Young, “and we won’t be happy until we are out of business.”
There is a more recent addition upstairs: Racks of school uniforms for families who can’t afford them.
“It breaks your heart to think that someone so young could think that it’s normal to live off emergency food parcels,” she added, thumbing a small winter coat labeled “3-4 years.”
Bowerham School and Stanleys Community Centre
In nearby Lancaster, Bowerham School looks like a fairly typical British primary. Among its 500-odd kids aged 2 to 11, the number of disadvantaged children eligible for government-funded free school meals is 25%, just a touch above the national average.
And yet, assistant head teacher Laura Denison said she now spends as much time making sure children are fed as on their education.
The problem, according to Denison and campaigners on this issue, is that some 800,000 children — or 1 in 3 — are living in poverty but currently miss out on these meals because their family earns slightly more than the 7,400-pound eligibility threshold, according to the Child Poverty Action Group charity.
“I feel like we’re at the beginning of what’s to come,” Denison said of the worsening financial outlook this winter.
“What’s coming is … scary,” she said, seemingly hesitant to voice a looming reality.
The problems are equally evident at Stanleys Community Centre, in Morecambe, which gives local children something to do after school — but more importantly uses donations to provide families with food for a small fee. Kids here talk about noticing meal portions at home being more meager or infrequent, or that their parents are chopping wood in the garden to burn for heat.
“You can see parents getting upset about it and they’re stressing about it: Are they going to turn the lights on and have food this Christmas or are they going to buy their children presents?” said Ellie Pullen, 16.
Another teenager at Stanleys, Ewan Wildman, 17, spoke about how the cost-of-living crisis has affected him as if it were no big deal.
“I don’t eat nearly so much as I used to,” he said, almost nonchalantly. “And we don’t have as much food in the house.”
As well as the material hardships they are coping with, the teens here also discuss the intertwined mental health issues: anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
“What’s surprised me is the intensity over the past few years, starting during lockdown,” said Janette Edwards, 48, the club’s health and wellbeing coach. “Since then we’ve had a massive backlog among the community and particularly young people with an increase in mental health issues.”
There is plenty to inspire hope amid this picture of Western deprivation. It’s a cliché to talk about impoverished communities as proud, resilient and unified. But here it’s also true. Many of the people interviewed by NBC News are members of the Morecambe Bay Poverty Truth Commission, which aims to start conversations between people experiencing poverty and those in positions of power.
Robyn Thomas, 52, the founder of the Stanleys community group, is one of an extraordinary group of people who appear determined to lift up their hometown — Atlas-style — in the absence of any functioning framework by the state.
But even she is finding it difficult to stay optimistic.
“Every day it’s a struggle to keep this place open,” she said. “And what worries me as an adult in my 50s is that our children are not going to get out of this for years and years and years. They’re going to be paying this back as long as I live.”