The cost of living crisis is nothing new to me; I’ve suffered at the sharp end of the UK’s punitive welfare system for the best part of a decade.
I taught English to international students for 18 years before illness forced me to leave in 2014. Despite having worked for the school for many years, when they were hit by a shrinking demand for lessons they changed all our shifts around. The rota I was given conflicted with my childcare duties. I have two children who were young at the time and as their mother and I are divorced, we have a shared residency agreement. This means I had little flexibility with shift patterns.
The stress of managing this schedule, coupled with the high cost of living in London, obliterated my mental health. My anxiety caused my body to burn with heat, my hands trembled uncontrollably, and my heart beat so fast that I thought it would come out of my chest.
I was signed off work. I claimed statutory sick pay but that only lasts for up to 28 weeks, so then I had to claim benefits. I received employment support allowance for a few weeks, but was assessed as being “fit for work”; I was ill but not ill enough. Bureaucratic errors meant I was sent to the wrong jobcentre and my benefits claim stopped for 10 weeks. At this point, jobcentre staff had to give me food bank vouchers.
It’s just my luck that when I was applying for benefits the Tories introduced the benefit cap along with universal credit. This took out-of-work benefits – like jobseeker’s allowance – and housing benefits and consolidated them into one monthly payment.
The cap was intended to stop people from having lots of kids to scrounge from the benefits system. However, research published in April 2022 found that this stupid and astoundingly callous policy has had a negligible effect on fertility rates. The only thing it has achieved is creating more impoverished children – children like mine.
The benefit cap has hit me for six. I rent privately, an extortionate £1,080 a month for a studio, and the most someone in my area can claim in benefits is capped at £1,250. Even though I shared childcare responsibilities with my former partner, I was treated as a single person by the Department for Work and Pensions as a result of not being in receipt of child benefit. This left my kids and me with £50 a week to survive.
And so I went back to work. I became a self-employed teacher and later took work as a courier, but it made no difference. As both of the jobs were informal, I had no payslips that could prove my income to access in-work benefits.
At the end of 2018, I did the sums and realised that after paying for diesel and the London congestion charge, I was effectively grafting for £4 an hour, which was £6.55 short of the London living wage at the time.
The futility of this was too much in the end. I became unwell again, could not cope and had a breakdown, and had to claim universal credit. I was fortunate to receive a small inheritance from my late father during this time, which sustained me for a while until the pandemic hit. When the £20 weekly uplift paid to universal credit claimants came in, I didn’t qualify for it because of the benefit cap and had to rely on the generosity of food banks to feed myself. My health progressively worsened. I was ill but not ill enough for the DWP, who rejected my claim for personal independence payment – a disability allowance for long-term health conditions – despite a letter from my GP, outpatient visits, and a degenerative back condition.
I now have a job with a charity that helped me when I was struggling. I got my first paycheck at the end of May. I’m grateful for the help I got from food banks, but for two years I’ve been surviving on dried pasta and canned food, so it felt bizarre buying fresh salmon from the supermarket recently. However, in the past three weeks, I’ve noticed the price of salmon creeping up. I’m just about getting by, but in the recesses of my mind I’m aware that I have no security of tenure, that I have to be constantly vigilant about my outgoings – or I’ll be back in the food bank queue.