Aurora is a participant in the Covid Realities project. She finds herself struggling to lift her family out of the household benefit cap.
It has not been easy for families such as ours during times like these. I am a widowed parent of two primary school aged children who has been unable to work since the onset of the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns. I feel we are largely ignored by the Government. The scraps we’ve been allowed are only to placate matters.
The Universal Credit household benefit cap was designed to push people to find employment and yet government statistics show it has not been as effective as they hoped at getting people into employment. Instead, it has driven vulnerable families with young children into further poverty and led to declining mental health. Even before the pandemic I had faced obstacles when it came to seeking employment. The lack of wraparound care, childcare we could ill afford, and work flexibility are a few examples. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) are of no help. They are an organisation designed to help people into employment, but their workforce would shrug their shoulders and sigh when faced with people like me – a solo parent.
There has been a significant increase in families recently affected by the benefit cap, who join us on this merry go round, finding themselves unable to afford essentials, let alone a basic standard of living. We’re having to ask charities for help. Those of us already at the benefit cap have been overlooked by the Government and haven’t had the £20 weekly uplift that other people on Universal Credit have had. Most of us are single parent households, though I can see more two parent families affected as furlough and the grace period for job losses comes to an end.
The household cap looks quite reasonable when read about in newspapers and described on the news – now couldn’t anyone live off that sum a year? It is £23,000 where we are in London and £20,000 for the rest of the UK. The whole idea was thought up from the time austerity measures were put into place. It was also based on a standard wage. In 2016, the cap was reduced by a further £3000 per year. As far as I know those in receipt were not consulted, and the reduction bill passed quietly under the radar.
After the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights investigated the impacts of austerity in the UK, the Government finally admitted that austerity was a political choice. Even Child Benefit is incorporated into the cap. A recent increase in Child Benefit saw no change for us (in our case what would have been an extra 60 pence every four weeks) because we were already capped. Until an overhaul to the cap level, or the removal of the cap completely, we will not receive a penny more. No doubt if ever questioned, the government would say it’s complicated for their computer systems to administer any increases above the household cap.
Of course, there are other issues to tackle such as housing costs. Housing costs alone are over 95% of our Universal Credit award as it is. I’ve already accumulated quite some debt. We’re having to apply through the council for extra money. That is another hoop to jump through. The threat of homelessness is heavy and constant. Not to mention the rising costs of food and utilities.
There has been an increase in billionaires during this pandemic. To add insult to injury, several very expensive vanity projects have arisen. Looking at the figures, wouldn’t the money have best been spent elsewhere? Instead, more people have found themselves in poverty. These are the costs we’ve borne in a society with great wealth and even greater inequality.
The media often portrays us as feckless and lazy. The language I’ve come across is disparaging, as if we’re to blame for the situation we’ve found ourselves in. There it is, at times staring at us in the face and at other times, like a shadow that follows whispering ‘scrounger, benefit scum, workless household’. We are socially outcast and excluded - our children unable to participate in ordinary or extracurricular activities. No playdates, no swimming lessons, and definitely no fripperies.
We are even invisible at times. More recently a celebrity (Marcus Rashford) has felt the need to take on our plight. The Prime Minister had no choice but to address the simple fact that the money we were supposedly receiving from the government was not enough to feed our children. Even the alternative to free school meals was reluctantly given in the form of vouchers… This feels like another echo of mistrust, no autonomy allowed. It has the air of ‘you belong to us!’
Where does this leave us?
We should be able to hold the government to account. Have more of an understanding that life circumstances are not a choice. I think on the whole, the household benefit cap has been a punishing, short-sighted venture, which will cost dearly in the long run. Absolutely anyone could be thrown into a precarious position at any time. We need to strengthen the safety net. We want to be productive members of a well-rounded society – but we need encouragement, in-work flexibility, training and support. In turn, we will be a balanced and successful workforce and our families will thrive and flourish.
We’re not simply going to disappear. We must continue to fight for our children – they are the future. I’m thankful for social media and technology for this outlet. It has given us a voice, one of collective thought and action. We are not alone in this! As always, I remain optimistic for change. After all, a sense of hope must be retained.