14,000 families in Northern Ireland cannot afford two meals a day
More than 14,000 families in Northern Ireland cannot afford to eat two meals a day, shocking new research has revealed.
A study which lays bare the full extent of poverty and deprivation said thousands of householders were living without the basics and found meat, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables too expensive to consume every day.
Thousands more said they often skimped on food so that other family members could eat.
"These findings present a bleak portrait of contemporary life for the bottom third of households in Northern Ireland," said Professor Mike Tomlinson, School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work at Queen's University.
Job losses, pay freezes and spiralling food prices were blamed for the increasing levels of hardship which left 115,000 adults and children (6.4% of the population) not properly fed by today's standards.
The proportion of families unable to heat their homes also hit an all time high of 13% compared to 3% a decade ago. Around 10% of people were living in a damp home and did not have enough money to fix the problem.
Families also spoke of the constant struggle to keep up with bills and 43% admitted they could not pay for an unexpected but necessary bill of £500.
A further 6% said they could not afford a computer and internet access for children to do their homework while a third of adults were unable to regularly save at least £20 a month.
Professor Tomlinson said the decline in living standards was a major challenge for the Stormont Executive and warned that planned welfare cuts could bring even more misery to those already struggling on the breadline.
"This situation, serious as it is, is set to get worse as benefit levels fall in real terms, as real wages continue a three-year decline and living standards are further squeezed," he added
The findings are the result of a UK-wide Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) project which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
Researchers from Queen's carried out two surveys during 2012 to gauge what people saw as life's necessities and establish minimum living standards.
Anti poverty campaigners said the academic findings backed up anecdotal evidence.
"People cannot afford to put food on the table, that is the reality for many people on the ground and it has been the reality for years," said Fiona McCausland development co-ordinator with the Northern Ireland Anti Poverty Network.
"A lot of sacrifices are being made because the money coming in is not enough to cover the money going out," she said.
"Poverty is a stark problem and one that we fear is increasing. When people fall into the poverty trap sometimes it is hard to escape and it can span generations. 'Can't heat or eat' is not just a throw away line."
Ms McCausland said urgent action was needed to protect the most vulnerable.
"The Government needs to look at its targets for child poverty. But, they urgently need to look at the impact of welfare reform. For families, things can get worse but nobody knows what the true impact will be," she added.