Destitution [ des-ti-too-shuhn]
Noun: lack of the means of subsistence; utter poverty; deprivation, lack, or absence.
Destitution is a word I have been hearing over and over in our fieldwork about migrant families with ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF), a restriction placed on welfare support for undocumented migrants and those with time-limited leave to remain in the UK. Desitution is used so frequently that I have found myself wondering precisely what people want to convey when they speak about destitution. Often words that roll off our tongues and seem most readily recognisable are the hardest to define. But they are also heavily overdetermined, the repositories of a whole host of assumptions – sometimes competing and contradictory. In short, they don’t always do the job we hope they do.
In this post, I begin to explore what work ‘destitution’ does in terms of welfare statecraft and migrants’ rights activism. I show that while destitution references well-established conditions of deprivation caused by NRPF, it can, counterintuitively, serve to reinforce ideas that some people are deserving, while others are not, and shrink the potentials of social solidarity for families struggling with NRPF.
In many ways it is not surprising to hear destitution used in relation to NRPF. There is abundant evidence from previous research that for people who are already economically and socially marginalised, such as single mothers and their children from former British colonies who are amongst the hardest hit, NRPF is a passport to a life of severe poverty (Jolly, Singh, and Lobo 2022). NRPF leaves families struggling for even basic essentials. It can mean skipping meals or having to do without. It compels extreme reliance on precarious social networks for support and accommodation, often in very unstable and inadequate circumstances, and even street homelessness. Others become trapped in situations of violence, exploitation, or transactional sex because they are left with few options for survival.
The NRPF condition, which applies to most migrants with time limited leave to remain in the UK and those who are undocumented and therefore subject to immigration control, makes clear that regardless of the circumstances in which they find themselves, people cannot access mainstream welfare benefits or social housing. While already an issue before the pandemic, the last two years have made it more public just how uncertain life is with NRPF as people lost work or support that was previously enabling them to, at best, ‘make do’ and ‘get by’. As the pandemic has made abundantly clear: NRPF = no safety net.
Naming the conditions people with NRPF may find themselves in as destitution is apposite given the word comes from the Latin destitutionem ‘a forsaking, deserting’. Destitution, therefore, calls up both extreme material lack but also existential abandonment. It is a highly emotive term suggestive of a group of people who are physically present and yet abandoned – fundamentally excluded from the conditions which enable life and therefore a profound form of ‘differential inclusion’ (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013). Indeed, in our research interviews as in the public domain, migrant rights activists and advocates draw on the abundant evidence of destitution in their efforts to make a compelling moral and political case against the forsaking of families with NRPF.
Yet, as Eve Dickson and I (2021) have argued, NRPF does not just reflect an abandonment by the state, but a form of ‘enforced’ destitution. It has been applied as a punitive post-hoc measure against migrant families who the state considers ‘undesirable’ but cannot deport. More broadly, it is part of longstanding efforts to deter migration through economic barriers to entry and by making life unbearable once in the UK.
At the same time, Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 makes clear the local state’s responsibility to ensure the welfare of all children in its jurisdiction. Section 17 is about the ‘Provision of services for children in need, their families and others’ and it states:
(1) It shall be the general duty of every local authority (in addition to the other duties imposed on them by this Part)—
(a) to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need; and
(b) so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families, by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.
Being ‘in need’ is spelled out later in Section 17:
(10) … a child shall be taken to be in need if—
(a) he is unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision for him of services by a local authority under this Part;
(b) his health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision for him of such services; or
(c) he is disabled
Notably here, the Act emphasises the importance of local authority support to ensure children’s welfare, within their family (17.1.b). Thus, Section 17 has become a crucial way that families struggling under the burden of NRPF have accessed much needed financial and accommodation support. The Children Act 1989 sits in contrast, even conflict, with the NRPF condition and, although never intended as such, Section 17 has essentially become a shadow welfare system administered and funded by the local state e.g., Local Authorities.
And this is where the issue of destitution gets murky…
In the Children Act 1989, provisions under Section 17 can potentially be wide- and far-ranging responses (‘a range and level of services’) to ‘need’ – a reference to health and development in the Act. Nowhere in Section 17, or indeed the entire Act, is destitution mentioned. Yet in case law and among some local authority representatives, including those we have engaged with during our fieldwork to date, ‘need’ is equated with destitution. In the case of R(AC & SH) v LB Lambeth Council (2017), for example, the judge explained: ‘The local authority is empowered to rescue a child in need from destitution where no other state provision is available’ (cited in NRPF Network 2018: 25). To put this in a different way, as the Act is interpreted and enacted, what is deemed necessary to ensure ‘a reasonable standard of health or development’ is simply the absence of extreme poverty.
Equating need with destitution takes Section 17 assessments into the realm of immigration policy: Section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and accompanying guidance counts a person as destitute if they ‘do not have adequate accommodation or any means of obtaining it’ or ‘cannot meet their other essential living needs’. As the UK’s migration regime is notoriously focused on welfare deterrence as co-researchers on Solidarities point out (see also Mills and Klein 2021), this arguably serves to move Section 17 support farther away from the intention of the Children Act 1989 which puts children’s welfare front and centre regardless of their immigration status.
As we have been hearing from our interlocutors on the Solidarities project, families with NRPF often find themselves having to prove they are not just broadly in need, but they are destitute, in order to gain Section 17 support. The ‘dance’, as one of our interlocutors calls the ritualised negotiations between local authorities, advocates, and families with NRPF over Section 17 support, hinges on well-rehearsed assessments of destitution. As we have been hearing, families end up being turned away from support if a local authority thinks that any friend or family member can host the family, often regardless of the cramped living arrangements or exploitative conditions this can create. Other families in my previous research with Eve Dickson have been turned away because they are not street homeless, despite being months in rent arrears with no hope of repaying the debt. It is unsurprising then to hear of families who show up at Local Authorities with suitcases in hand and nowhere to go, as they have been evicted from whatever form of temporary or inhospitable accommodation they had managed until that point.
My point here is not to contest case law where need and destitution have become equated or to weigh in on if and how local authorities are meeting their legal obligations. Lawyers, advocates, and local authorities themselves are far better placed than me to make such assessments. These obligations are complex, not least because Section 17 only becomes a duty for local authorities in respect to an individual child if there is a potential breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), with destitution being one potential breach. I am, however, interested to explore further with our interlocutors how and why a conflation between need and destitution persists to the point that it seems almost common-sensical. For now, though, I point to the profound implications of this situation for the meeting of social and physical need.
If Section 17 support is only given in the face of destitution, this – at best – represents a shallow view of welfare and solidarity. For one thing, this suggests that the line at which deservingness is drawn is so low that it is only those who are experiencing destitution, ‘such extreme want as threatens life unless relieved’, who are determined to be deserving. Solidarity, in the form of social support, is thus reduced to those lives that are already profoundly at risk. A low bar indeed and, given that families most affected by NRPF are Black and Brown, it is one that brings into vivid and horrible relief Ruth Wilson-Gilmore’s (2007: 28) definition of racism: ‘The state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death’.
The solution, however, is not simply to raise the bar of deservingness, seeking to capture people just before they fall into a state-defined condition of destitution. This would inevitably leave some people out, as deservingness is always already drawn by its outside (undeservingness). Further, leaving the logic of destitution as deservingness intact, implies that conditions of grinding, yet banal, impoverishment are in some way acceptable or at least outside the realm in which solidaristic action is necessary.
Instead, I hope that by listening closely to our interlocutors – including families with NRPF – we will catch glimpses of imaginaries and practices of solidarity that move beyond efforts to redraw lines of deservingness and the reduction of (demands for) support to the point where life is already impossible and unliveable.
Dickson, Eve, and Rachel Rosen. 2021. ’“Punishing those who do the wrong thing”: Enforcing destitution and debt through the UK’s family migration rules’, Critical Social Policy, 41: 545–65.
Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2007. Golden Gulag: Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California (University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, California).
Jolly, Andy, Jasber Singh, and Sunila Lobo. 2022. ’No recourse to public funds: a qualitative evidence synthesis’, International Journal of Migration, Health and Social Care, ahead-of-print.
Mezzadra, Sandro, and Brett Neilson. 2013. Borders as Method, or, The Multiplication of Labor (Duke University Press: Durham and London).
Mills, China, and Elise Klein. 2021. ’Affective technologies of welfare deterrence in Australia and the United Kingdom’, Economy and Society: 1-26.
NRPF Network. 2018. ”Assessing and supporting children and families who have no recourse to public funds (NRPF): Practice guidance for local authorities.” In. London: NRPF Network.