"How many people now are asking themselves “Is this all you get on Universal Credit?” Challenging poverty in a time of COVID

Oct 15, 2020

Syeda F

I first heard about Covid Realities through work and it interested me. I work in the benefits system and I’m on benefits - win, win. I read what others have been sharing on the website, signed up and did my first diary, which is what taking part in COVID Realities involves. It was about how I didn’t feel my experience as a lone parent on Universal Credit (UC) in these COVID times was in any way similar to other people’s. I am lucky that I have been around the benefits system for some years and knew what to expect from it. Claiming UC held no surprises to me and I was able to cope with its limitations – I knew when to claim and how much I would get, and so for example looked at housing that was more affordable. I didn’t think I had much to offer the other participants or the researchers, but I’ve found out I do have useful things to share.  

In my diary entries I am trying not to get too fixated on the £20 a week “COVID-bonus” side of things, although losing it will be a worry. The £20 is a temporary add on to UC which has made a massive difference. 

Over time, I think I am seeing more things affecting my life because of COVID – mainly with my daughters and how they are experiencing COVID living in a family which relies on benefits. I’m still a lucky one. I have £20 a week more than I did the first time I was on UC in the Before Days. I get to work from home so I see more of the girls, and that means less spent on petrol so I can currently address the debts from a relationship breakdown. But that’ll change in 6 months as the longer-term effects of COVID will show themselves. My diary entries might get longer then. 

As the pandemic and government restrictions roll on, I am more concerned about how this is affecting the girls who are missing their friends, and are taking on the fears and worries of what they see and hear is happening around them. Really they should be meeting friends, going out doing stuff and concentrating on school. You don’t get that time back.

For me, challenging poverty matters because a lack of money leads to other serious problems – homelessness, ill health, relationship breakdown. You get the money situation right and you lower the risk of these greater problems. Challenging poverty matters right now because this pandemic has shone a light on just how close to poverty many people were without realising it. How many people now are asking themselves “Is this all you get on UC?” Few perhaps realise it has actually risen to the level we get now compared to before COVID. So challenging poverty by confronting how close it is to most of us does matter – and not just during a pandemic. 

In my everyday life, I have heard a lot of comments from people who look at the benefit rates and say something like – “So you get that AND all your rent paid?” And other such myths. Well, no, I don’t get my rent paid – I get an amount in my UC calculation for my rent, but the rate they use to calculate my housing costs is set at the bottom 30 per cent of the market rate (and it was even less before COVID). So you downsize because you do not get that and all your rent paid. These myths exist because many people do not come near the benefits system and just see the headlines in the papers about A.N Other, benefit cheat. Just 1 per cent of the benefits bill is fraudulent claims but it won’t say that in the news article. So you need to hear the voices of the people who represent the other 99 per cent of benefit expenditure. 

I hope Covid Realities will make a difference because it is all about the voices and experiences of those with direct experience of living on a low income. The talks I’ve had through work and socially with people who do not know the benefit system always come down to money – “yes, but have you seen how much is spent on benefits?” And there isn’t an easy way to engage with that unless you take the time to explain why the bill is so high, and how £73 a week (the allowance for a single adult before COVID) isn’t enough to live on. And usually you are asked to leave the pub at that point. But using people’s actual experiences I hope might tell the story more directly. I hope to play a part in that through sharing my experiences and being a part of Covid Realities.

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