A world of grinding misery opens up
I don’t know what to say. This window into another kind of world opens up to me about once a month or so, when my dad rings and asks if he can borrow some money. He keeps using the verb ‘borrow,’ and I know it’s his pride which might be the only thing in his life that’s not counted out in pocket change, so I blink back my annoyance because I have never asked for a penny back, and I know he couldn’t pay it anyway.
My dad met my stepmother about 18 years ago, when my twin sister and I were 19. They have been on benefits for nearly 18 years because my stepmother has multiple sclerosis, and my dad is her full-time carer. He doesn’t get carers’ allowance though; it takes more than your average education to wade through the impenetrable DWP system to apply for this benefit, and he never managed. And ever since his wife missed one of her appointments, her PIP was cancelled and she was told she could never apply for it again.
We have all read about the cruelty of the questionnaire parroted by an administrative assistant that decides the medical fates of thousands. It seems that this magical questionnaire can do more than medical science has ever achieved – it can make a condition vanish entirely.
The Conservatives crowed about austerity
Of course, it doesn’t. My dad, his wife and my teenage brother and sister had no money whatsoever for five months in 2017, and my twin and I looked at our own bank accounts and counted out what we could afford to keep a family of four fed and warm for a while – though not much else. All the while Conservative politicians crowed about the success of austerity.
We know in 2021 that 2.1 million food parcels were distributed by foodbanks, many of these to families where one or more people work. The focus for a lot of commentators is the extent of poverty among these worthy and deserving poor who are ‘doing their best’ and ‘working hard.’
But those people that can’t work, who are disabled or recovering from trauma or have mental health conditions are often left out of the discussion. And it was bitter to hear politicians smugly trumpeting their employment statistics which are based on the number of people claiming Employment Support Allowance (ESA). If you cut someone’s benefits – they’re not on your books anymore. So my family slips through the cracks and are counted as part of the ‘success.’
When their benefits were finally reinstated, after my father engaged social services to categorise his children as ‘at risk’ in order to try and get some sort of help, his wife was given ESA. As a disabled person with a lifetime condition that has sent her blind three times, she is obviously not looking for work – yet has to maintain fortnightly visits and scrutiny or risk losing it again.
ESA is £209 a fortnight. Housing benefit blessedly covers the rent and goes directly to the landlord. For both children, they are entitled to child tax credit at £104 a week and child benefit at £34 every Tuesday. Do the maths: this is £970 a month for four people to live on. For gas, for electricity, for food, for internet, for water rates.
And what do you do in August when it’s time to buy new shoes? What about when the washing machine breaks or the one good shirt you had as a gift that you passed down to your son as he grows is no good anymore? And winter coats, food tech ingredients and new pens? What do you do in a pandemic when there is one computer for two children to do schoolwork on? When one of you has an accident in the garden and there is literally no money to even get a bus to hospital?
Struggling with poverty
To a family already struggling with poverty and chronic illness, add legacy trauma, mental health issues and all the coping mechanisms that go with those. Add another five-week gap in their benefits when they were moved districts by social services.
When they transferred to Universal Credit which is used in the new authority, add the impossibility of trying to repay the loan by a pound a week from that tiny budget. Then add an ongoing battle with both authorities suddenly demanding you fix a discrepancy in housing benefit. Finish with an eviction notice. My Dad’s in his mid-fifties now, and I could hear his hands shaking when he got out the paperwork to talk me through it on the phone.
“I put four pound on my gas meter this morning, and just sat there and watched it go down. I’ve been going to bed at seven because it’s too cold to stay up. I didn’t even have the radiators on, that was just cooking.”
That was March. When we had that conversation, it had just snowed. And now here we are in August. Inflation has reached double digits and benefits have been cut again by 5% in real terms by not keeping up. When my phone rings, it now opens the window into their world every week and a half instead of once a month. It’s always for gas and electricity. Now, they only eat in foodbanks, but if you visit more than six times in three months, even they turn you away.
Meanwhile the radios have been screaming for months about energy price caps rising in October, and again in January. Even schools are warning they will not be able to heat themselves this winter and are struggling to cover the cost of food.
I am terrified. I don’t know how my family are going to survive. They won’t be able to afford to put heating on at all, and as well as my stepmother’s poor health, my dad increasingly mentions another ‘pain’ in his body somewhere – for which he refuses to see a doctor. He can’t afford the bus fare.
Meanwhile the two mediocre skin sacks bickering over the Tory leadership have made it very clear that they believe ‘low skilled’ people to be worthless. No economic contribution is no worth. What is to be done with these waste products of the surplus population?
Is eugenics through poverty their solution to boost the economy?