The true cost of the cost of living crisis

Andrew Gordon
|May 9, 2024

For millions across the UK, the relentless rise in the cost of living has become an inescapable reality—one that's straining household finances and weighing heavily on the public psyche. At Prolific, our latest polling data provides stark insights into just how pervasive this crisis has become for the general population.

Every two weeks, we survey a nationally representative sample of 2,000 UK participants to take the temperature on key issues impacting people's lives. Our cost of living questions have consistently revealed the immense scale and uneven distribution of this economic crunch hitting families.

The findings paint a sobering picture, with the shared struggle increasingly transcending traditional demographic boundaries. But perhaps most concerning are the overarching feelings that the government's response has fallen desperately short in the eyes of voters across the political spectrum.

Explore our data for yourself in our interactive tracker [beta]

The widespread impact hitting homes

To gauge the personal toll, we asked participants: ‘how much have you struggled with the cost of living over the last two weeks?’ The answers reveal a nation under strain.

At the nationwide level, ‘sometimes’ struggling emerges as the most common response, consistently hovering in the mid-to-high 20s percentage range. Around half the country reports ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ struggling.

However, a startling quarter of the population selected ‘very often’ or ‘always’ in our latest poll. This isn't an isolated anecdote and highlights the reality reshaping how a substantial segment of British society navigates daily life right now.

Striking demographic divides

Diving deeper, the disparities across different groups become even more apparent.

Generational gaps

  • Younger demographics are feeling the squeeze far more intensely, with 37% of 18-24 year olds and 34% of 25-49 year olds in the last release indicating they ‘very often’ or ‘always’ struggle.
  • This contrasts with just 17% of those 65 and older facing the same frequency of difficulties.

Political fault lines

  • Among Labour voters, over a third (34%) report ‘very often’ or ‘always’ struggling to make ends meet, compared to just 21% of Conservatives.
  • The cost of living pressures weigh most heavily on Reform UK supporters at a staggering 43%.

Racial inequalities

  • Black participants (32%) are more likely than any other ethnicity to indicate extreme struggles.
  • The impacts on various ethnic minority groups could potentially exacerbate existing inequalities if left unaddressed.

Fragile progress and worsening storm clouds

While the depth of hardship remains profound, there are faint glimmers of positive momentum buried in the data over the past few months. Younger people have shown subtle improvements, shifting from the highest struggle categories towards ‘sometimes.’ Conservative voters have experienced a mild strengthening too, with ‘never’ and ‘rarely struggling’ overtaking ‘sometimes.’

However, these fragile shifts are likely temporary restraints on an otherwise accelerating crisis:

  • Energy price caps are set to surge even higher this autumn
  • Rent costs continue spiraling nationwide
  • Food inflation remains historically elevated

All signs point to further intensification of household pressures in the coming months. These worsening trajectories hint at the malleability of public sentiment, a dynamic that will likely intensify as the next general election looms and cost of living concerns influence voting intentions. Sustained desperation could reshape the national political landscape if bold action isn't taken.

Perceptions of an inadequate government response

Government response brings us to one of the most scathing indictments evident in the polling data: the overwhelming belief that its efforts to combat this economic crisis have been severely lacking.

We asked: ‘do you feel the government is doing enough to combat the cost of living crisis?’ Nationally, the dominant sentiment is a shortage of significant action being taken.

The most common response was ‘some effort,’ followed directly by ‘no effort at all.’ A mere 1% of Britons feel the government is making a ‘strong effort,’ with only 5% indicating even ‘considerable effort’ is underway.

A unifying disapproval across ages and affiliations

Surprisingly, this overarching negativity towards the government's response persists across all age demographics. Despite being somewhat less impacted, even older citizens don't view the official measures any more favorably than younger, harder-hit groups.

Among voters:

  • The Conservative base emerges as the segment most accepting of the party's cost of living initiatives to date. Around a third (31%) assess there is ‘moderate effort’ being made, a figure that has gradually climbed over the past month.
  • In stark contrast, the view from the Labour camp is far more critical. ‘No effort at all’ and ‘some effort’ utterly dominate the opposition's perspective, with a staggering 29 percentage point gap separating them from those who perceive any higher than a ‘moderate effort’ level of action.
  • But it's the judgement from Reform UK supporters that delivers perhaps the most scathing rebuke. A full 65% of its voters—up an astonishing 37% in just one month—believe there is ‘no effort at all’ being made by the government, making them the single most dismissive voter bloc across all those surveyed.

This remarkably unified condemnation of the government's actions from nearly every demographic and political affiliation should set off deafening alarm bells across Whitehall. It reflects a complete obliteration of public trust that policies put forth so far can provide meaningful relief from the economic firestorm facing citizens.

With the International Monetary Fund issuing yet another stark warning about prospects for the UK economy, dismissing these verdicts from the public is likely to prove untenable for any party hoping to garner electoral success in the coming years. The exhaustion of people's financial coping mechanisms appears to be nearing its end.

A rallying cry for public urgency

While the numbers provide an important snapshot of the prevailing public mood, they also underscore the burning need for substantive action and policies to match the magnitude of this national crisis.

The corrosive effects of prolonged financial strain jeopardize far more than just household balance sheets. Sustained, multi-generational damage looms if meaningful interventions and relief don't arrive swiftly:

  • Threats to overall health and well-being
  • Imperiling of future productivity and economic competitiveness
  • Exacerbating long standing societal disparities and inequalities

We've already witnessed the uneven toll extracted across communities, hinting at the potential for lasting disparities if this crisis persists unabated. It is a scenario that necessitates a degree of public urgency and cross-partisan cooperation that often eludes us in times of immense collective hardship.

As our polling has continued to reflect, the British people are calling out with unmistakable clarity for substantive solutions that demonstrate real effort commensurate with the challenge at hand.

Whether those pleas can inspire the necessary response could ultimately shape not just the immediate aftermath of this crisis, but the legacy of how we collectively endured one of the most formidable economic tests of our time. As the impacts keep reverberating through households nationwide, the consequences of falling short are growing too severe to ignore.

A stark choice lies ahead

The onus rests squarely on policymakers to heed these impassioned calls and combat apathy with action. Restoring public faith in the government's ability to uphold its most fundamental obligation to guarantee societal and economic stability for its citizens. For too many, that assurance has eroded nearly beyond recognition as this crisis intensifies.

How we respond in the face of such monumental headwinds could leave indelible marks on Britain's path forward. Will we rise to confront these economic calamities head-on, through shared sacrifice and an abiding resilience that has seen us through so many prior challenges? Or will harsh realities and detached institutions calcify deep within the nation's psyche, fraying the fabric of public trust permanently?

The stakes are steep, but the public's messages have been sounded clearly. What's to be determined is whether they'll be regarded as mere lamentations, or act as a rallying cry for the urgent response this moment demands.

Explore our data for yourself in our interactive tracker [beta]