24 November 2021

We cannot continue to pretend that being in work means not being in poverty: My experience of in-work poverty

Mel is a participant in Covid Realities

I’m Mel. I am 43 years old, and this is my story.

Throughout my whole life I have been all too aware of the phrase ‘in-work poverty’. As my parents reflect on difficult times during the 1980’s where they both worked full time to make ends meet, I recall icy windows and worn-out clothes. But I also recall a lot of love and laughter and then I remember that we were the lucky ones.

After I left school, I went to college and trained to be an early-years practitioner. Circumstances meant that I moved into my own council bedsit at the age of 19, with my inadequate full-time wage barely covering the bills. I crept into debt, and I was so, so lonely. Living alone with no money to go out and meet people in the days before the internet meant sitting by myself in a cold council bedsit or going to cheap bars to forget reality. My mental health was at rock bottom and at 24 I was alone and pregnant with my eldest child.

The birth of my daughter meant that I qualified for working tax credits which topped up my income. I went back to work 4 days a week. I managed to pay off some debts, met fellow parents at free playgroup sessions and started to live. A couple of years later I had a new partner and we moved into a new rented home with my daughter. A joyous moment that was short lived as I became a victim of domestic abuse. When the relationship ended, I found I was jointly liable for debts that I didn’t know about. I increased my hours to full time before realising that this made me financially worse off. The stress of my situation coupled with insane childcare bills (even with a staff discount!) became too much and my mental health plummeted to a dangerous level. I was signed off work and became solely reliant on benefits which ironically saw me being better off than being in work. How was that right? How can being in work make you worse off?! By the time I had paid my childcare fees, the money I was earning by looking after other people’s children was not enough to keep me out of poverty. At home I could look after my own child. My mental health improved, and the love and laughter that I recalled from my own childhood was alive once again. Yet I was aware of the whispers about me being a single mum on benefits and I felt ashamed.

Soon after, when I least expected it I met an amazing man who is my now husband. When he moved in with me and my daughter, we were immediately financially worse off. A fully qualified chef with years of experience, he was working split shifts in a low paid job. His unsociable hours meant that it was impossible for us both to work. At least if one of us was at home we wouldn’t have to pay childcare costs. When our younger daughter was born during the busy Christmas period, he was the head chef in an independent pub with a good food reputation. He was denied time off work. We could not afford to dispute this, and so when she was 2 days old, he went back to his very low paid job where he worked long hours in a very stressful kitchen environment. Our finances tumbled out of control. Yet to other people me and my eldest daughter were no longer a burden on society anymore because, after all, we were a 2-parent family, my husband was working, and we were seen to be that cornflake packet family for whom life was pretty good, and in many ways it was, if you take away the cold hard fact that we were living in poverty and every day was a struggle to make ends meet. I remember one conversation with someone who was surprised when I shared with them how much my husband earned. They did not believe me and argued that as a head chef he had to be better paid than that. I shared their disbelief but with a deep sense of despair as we carried on living with no possibility of anything changing. We were trapped.

Our younger daughter presented with very challenging behaviour in her early childhood. Last year, at the age of 13 she was diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. I felt unable to attend playgroups with her and I became socially isolated. My already fragile mental health suffered as my husband continued to work long, unsociable hours whilst I cared for the children. But we were still living hand to mouth. When the washing machine broke, we had to get a new one from a catalogue which along with the initial inflated cost also came with extortionate interest rates.

A month after our son was born my husband lost his job. Desperate to stay in work he took on a succession of zero-hour contract jobs, all were low paid with no job security. Being in work meant that our children did not qualify for free school meals, but our low income did mean that we qualified for some housing benefit and council tax benefit. When the council tax reduction scheme came in, we lost much of that, and our outgoings increased again. Through no fault of our own several tax credit overpayments were made. Despite HMRC’s efforts to take the debt from subsequent awards, years later we have still not been able to pay these back as each April they agree with us that we cannot afford to. How ironic!

While my children were younger, I worked hard to address my mental health issues. When my younger daughter started school, I gave my time to volunteer as a school governor. I have run playgroups, fundraising projects and given my time to supporting other people with mental health difficulties. With the support of StepChange, we entered a debt management plan to address and pay off our spiralling debt.

4 years ago, I went back to education and began an access course at my local FE college. That year was tough. The only funding available was for my tuition. There was a college bursary but because my husband was in work, I didn’t qualify for it. I applied to a local charity and was fortunate to get a small grant towards a cheap laptop which saw me through the course. Somehow, we managed to find the money for my bus fares and as I sat in my lessons, I felt equal with my peers. What a wonderful feeling. I soon came down to earth again when someone suggested a Secret Santa event. How embarrassing to admit that I couldn’t even afford a £5 gift. The reality was that spending £5 on someone at college meant that my children would lose out on a present. Surely there’s something wrong if you can’t afford to buy a friend a £5 gift at Christmas?!

Hard work and determination meant that I finished my course with the highest grades possible and secured myself a place at university. The relief was immense. I was doing something to better myself and my family and at university I was not alone in having a low income! I had found my place. With even more hard work and determination I earned a first-class honours degree in Childhood Studies. However, nobody envisaged a global pandemic and the last year of my course saw my husband furloughed and ultimately made redundant. He is back in work now but on a lower rate and with fewer hours. On the wrong side of the cut off for extra support we didn’t qualify for free prescriptions/dental care etc. Both me and my husband wear varifocal glasses, and they are expensive! After years of not being able to afford dental costs, my teeth are in an awful state. I had to get an emergency dentist appointment and had a front tooth removed. A temporary denture would cost £282. In 6 months, I could get a permanent denture that would cost another £282. Instead, I fashioned a false tooth myself using a £10 kit from the internet.

My hard work and determination has led to me successfully gaining full time employment. After going to university, working incredibly hard and taking every opportunity available to me I’m finally earning a good salary and we feel like we can breathe for the first time in years. I work from home which means no childcare costs and no transport costs. The monetary cost of getting to this point has been thousands of pounds of student loans. One day we will be debt free. Our debt management plan runs until 2027. The mental cost of getting here has been immeasurable. I’m not ready to sum that cost up in words just yet… it will take a lot of reflection to understand just how much we sacrificed to get here.

But as I said at the start, then I remember that we are the lucky ones. I have a supportive, loving family and we laugh a lot. My whole life has had this common thread of ‘in-work poverty’ running through it. Connected to this are key themes including mental health, shame, and stigma. Despite all our best efforts to keep one of us in full time work we have lived our lives counting every single penny, ‘borrowing’ (with no chance of paying back!) money from birthday money given to the children by relatives and waiting for the next month to pay for school trips or repairing the car. We were lucky that we were never forced to switch over to Universal Credit. I spent the last few years dreading getting that letter that would plunge us into more poverty. The uncertainty of life on a low income is horrific. Zero-hour contracts and then being furloughed with no job to return to is like being on a rollercoaster from your worst nightmare. Being ill isn’t an option. Going to the doctors means time off work, then the worry of prescription charges and being signed off on SSP means you carry on until you physically can’t carry on anymore.

Going to work often feels like it’s about ‘doing the right thing’ or ‘doing your part for society’. It’s also about working your fingers to the bone to put an extra few quid in the gas meter so we can dry the school uniforms before tomorrow because ‘we can only afford one jumper with a logo on it, and it got covered in paint today’. Being in poverty means hiding all of this from the outside world because the shame can be unbearable, but as long as you’re in work then you’re not a burden to society, right?

I feel proud that my children have grown up understanding that working hard pays off, but that has only come because I was fortunate enough to go to university as an adult. They can’t see how working your fingers to the bone in a low paid job makes things better. All they see is the struggling to make ends meet, the worn-out clothes, the missed opportunities, and the responses of “maybe next month”, knowing that next month will never come. My children have never had music lessons or been on the school skiing trip with their friends. My eldest daughter has just started university. She is training to be a children’s nurse. She is following her dream and working incredibly hard, but I fear for her financial security working as a low paid nurse in the NHS.

Something needs to change. We cannot continue to pretend that being in work means not being in poverty. We need to address the position of privilege that prevents people from recognising the realities of in work poverty. The shame and stigma of in work poverty means it is hidden. Until then my story will continue through the generations. The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. We deserve more and our children deserve more.

Contributors featured in
More media logos