Struggling to pay for the basics after welfare reform

Posted by Sarah Brodbin Raising Voices Officer, UK Policy, Programme and Campaigns

24th Apr 2014

Tracy with her daughter. Credit: Oxfam

UK Poverty Communications Officer Sarah Brodbin relates the experience of Tracy, a mother-of-one, who has turned to foodbanks as she struggles to pay for the basics due to the impact of welfare reform. She hopes her daughter does not face the same struggle.

In January I went to Tower Hamlets Foodbank, a Trussell Trust affiliated foodbank providing food and advice to local residents experiencing financial hardship.

"We don't get to eat real food like fruit and vegetables."There, I met 24-year-old mum Tracy with her three-month-old daughter Samantha. Tracy had been homeless in the past but this was the first time she had ever had to visit a foodbank. She had been referred to the foodbank by her daughter's social worker because welfare reforms had left the family without enough money to heat their house and to feed themselves properly. Tracy was concerned about the quality of food her and partner James were eating, but felt they had no choice. 

"We don't get to eat real food like fruit and vegetables. And I'm not a fan of processed meats but real meat is so expensive we have no choice. When I was growing up we'd only have fish fingers or something once or twice a week, and proper food the rest of the time. Now it's the other way around. We only have proper meat once a month now."

They were also being financially crippled by the cost of their heating. "The house has electric heaters which are expensive to run. They're only in two rooms but it costs us £40 a week just for those rooms."

Her partner James works part-time as a teaching assistant in a local secondary school. But his hours have recently been slashed from 13 to just 7 due to council budget cuts and, as he's only paid during term time, his average monthly income after tax is just £200. 

To supplement their income Tracy was claiming cash benefits specifically designed to provide families with money to pay for basics, such as food and heating. But these cash benefits have not kept pace with inflation, meaning people with low or no income have even less on which to rebuild their lives. 

The impact of welfare reform

In addition, under welfare reforms introduced in 2011, families like Tracy's are having to use money from their cash benefits to contribute to their rent and council tax and to subsidise the cost of any 'spare rooms' (a subsidy more commonly known as the bedroom tax).  

A lack of social housing in Tower Hamlets had led their local housing office to relocate Tracy and her family to a privately owned flat in Essex, meaning that after living separately in hostel accommodation, they finally had a roof over their heads. However, the limits on Local Housing Allowance (LHA) introduced in 2011 capped the amount of support they could claim.  

As a result, Tracy and her family had to pay £300 a month towards their rent. In addition, she is paying a monthly council tax contribution of £160. These prohibitive costs from an already limited pot have pushed them into food and fuel poverty and brought them to the foodbank's door.  

Tracy was grateful for the foodbank's help but felt she shouldn't have been there in the first place.

"It's nice there are people out there who help. But I think the welfare reforms are horrendous especially when you've worked in the past and paid taxes. When you have a child and you can't work the government should really help you more than they do. They just give you a bit and say "Right, live on that." It's not possible to live on it!" 

One of 1.75 million pushed into deeper poverty

Our recent report with New Policy Institute, Multiple Cuts For the Poorest Families, found that there are 1.75 million families like Tracy's, forced to use their cash benefit on costs they were previously deemed too poor to pay, which leaves even less available for the basics. 780,000 families have an income below the safety net as a result of cuts made to housing benefit since April 2011, and just over 50% of these families are private renters, like Tracy, affected by LHA changes. 

We need a welfare system that supports people to rebuild their lives and overcome poverty, not one that cripples them with unrealistic costs.Tracy felt the social security system needed updating but thought the government were intent on cutting costs no matter what the impact on people like her. 

"I think the government do know what they've done (with welfare reform) but they don't care. The government are all rich people: if they got a taste of how we live they'd change their minds about what they've done. It feels like the whole world is against you, it's depressing."  

We need a welfare system that supports people to rebuild their lives and overcome poverty, not one that cripples them with unrealistic costs.  Tracy is concerned for her daughter's future:

"I want Samantha to have a good education and grow up to be respectful to her elders. I really want her to have a better life than I've had so far. I don't want her to go through the things I've been through."

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Blog post written by Sarah Brodbin

Raising Voices Officer, UK Policy, Programme and Campaigns

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