Destitute. It’s a word that you don’t hear a lot in the 21st century — and it certainly sounds like it belongs in another era. But it’s here. And now, we’re hearing about it. According to research published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and Heriot-Watt University more than 1.5 million people were destitute in the UK last year. Destitute. Not poor, not struggling: destitute. According to the research that number included almost 650,000 with physical or mental health problems, and 365,000 children. Destitute. In 21st century Britain.

And it’s not just rhetoric — when they say destitute, they mean it. To be classified by the JRF as destitute, a person or their children must have gone without at least two of six basic essentials in the last month: shelter, food, heating, lighting, appropriate clothing or footwear, and basic toiletries such as deodorant and toilet roll. For many, the situation was even more bleak with almost half of the destitute households saying they lacked three or more essentials. This is destitution in the truest sense of the word.

It’s both tragic and infuriating — but even more so when you hear what the JRF attributed these levels of destitution to. “For those left destitute, JRF has identified that social security policies and practice can in many cases directly lead to destitution ‘by design’ – from gaps, flaws, and choices within the social security system – meaning that people are being left without support when they most need it,” the report read. By design — those words leave nothing to the imagination.

It is 2018 and yet we still have millions of people — and hundreds of thousands of children — going without basic essentials. Children who don’t know what it’s like to have regular access to food, shelter, and heating — let alone know the freedom and irreverence that should come with childhood. What pushed these people into such dire straights? The report named the main causes, including:

Low benefit levels, delays in receiving benefits and sanctions
Harsh and uncoordinated debt recovery practices by public authorities and utility companies
Pressures caused by poor health or disability
High costs for housing and other essentials.

There is no excuse for people — especially children — to be living like this in modern Britain. But the fact that the report can so clearly point to systemic, punishing roots within our government’s policies is shocking. Benefits sanctions, a lack of regulation on loan sharks and unethical lending, and a lack of safety net are pushing people into the most dire of circumstances. We need to do better.