National Children's Home, the second largest child care charity, questioned 347 families on very low incomes attending its family centres in England, Scotland and Wales.
Generally the survey, which was compiled from detailed weekly accounts, suggests that very little money is spent unwisely, and that even with prudence and caution the amounts received are inadequate, suggesting state benefits need to be higher. A couple with children aged 11 and eight would currently receive pounds 103.80 a week. Half the respondents were one- parent families, and 82 per cent of those on benefit had a net weekly income of less than pounds 100, while 83 per cent of those earning a wage lived on less than pounds 200 a week. The average gross family income for 1990, the latest available figure, was pounds 335.67.
'The material can, of course, only scratch the surface to reveal a little of what lies below. But the large numbers of respondents involved . . . gives us confidence that the results reflect the experiences of the many hundreds of thousands of families living on low incomes in Britain today,' the report concludes.
More than two-thirds of those living on benefits said there had been times when they felt 'really desperate about money'. The majority said money problems affected their health, with large proportions reporting difficulty in sleeping, depression, loss of appetite, and, especially in the young, an increase in smoking.
The most common area of arrears for household expenses was the poll tax, with 63 per cent of families behind with payments, followed by fuel and water bills (49 per cent), clothes and shoes (32 per cent) and rent or mortgage (27 per cent). Heating, eating and rent or mortgage were almost universally paid ahead of poll tax.
Families were asked how they would spend an extra pounds 10 of income. Most said it would be used for food, extra items for children, debt repayments, clothes, shoes and fuel bills.
More than half said they were never able to save any money. Almost all were in debt. Asked how much they would need to pay off their debts, more than half said they would need less than pounds 500. A fifth needed between pounds 500 and pounds 1,000, 15 per cent between pounds 1,001 and pounds 5,000 and one in 50 between pounds 5,001 and pounds 10,000. One family in 20 had debts of more than pounds 10,000.
Another section asked how the borrowed money had been spent. Nearly 90 per cent of families said it had gone on either basic necessities (44 per cent) or emergencies (45 per cent). Just over a third had spent it on large items like cookers and furniture, and just under a third on small items such as repairs, clothes and shoes. Only 7 per cent had spent it on other things than these categories, such as a wedding.
Eleven families, whose weekly spending was less than a third of the average for UK households, were interviewed in greater depth, and these studies revealed that the families spent pounds 9.10 per person on a week's food, compared to the national average of pounds 15.32, and only 62p a week on clothing and shoes against a national average of pounds 5.71.
Only pounds 3.47 was spent on items such as alcohol, tobacco, leisure items and motoring, against a much higher figure of pounds 25.16 spent by other low income households.
Of the 11 families interviewed in depth, most felt sad, guilty or angry about not being able to give their children what they needed. Almost half said their children were likely to misbehave as a result of not being able to buy things.
The survey was carried out in January and February this year.
Deep in Debt; NCH, Highbury Park, London N5 1UD; pounds 5.