Even in a relatively affluent part of the UK, the new system is making people homeless and increasing dependence on food banks.
Paul lost his job in a warehouse at the beginning of 2016. He struggled to find other work and ended up amassing rent arrears and relying on food banks. Eventually he was evicted from his private-rented accommodation.
Paul is from Stafford, an area in the Midlands with above average employment and below average poverty. But even in relatively affluent towns, there’s evidence of the detrimental impact of Universal Credit, amid concerns about increasing poverty and homelessness.
Although he is now back in work, Paul believes Universal Credit caused him over 12 months of unnecessary hardship.
“I can’t describe the shame I felt in having to go to a food bank. It almost crushed me. It never occurred to me that I would ever be in a position where I would experience the actual pain of hunger.”
In the UK, people are going hungry and homelessness is increasing at a startling rate. Even in Stafford, the number of rough sleepers has soared since 2015.
Despite this, the Conservative share of the vote is at its highest since Margaret Thatcher – allowing the continuation of a welfare reform programme marked by increasing poverty, destitution and homelessness, and enabling the continued roll-out of Universal Credit.
In Stafford, Universal Credit has been in place for single people since October 2015, with the second stage – including the vulnerable, and applicants with children – due in August 2018. The Institute of Fiscal Studies predicts this will contribute to the number of children living in absolute poverty hitting a record 5.2 million by 2022. Resolution Foundation figures show 2.5 million working households will be £1,000 a year worse off thanks to Universal Credit.
For some agencies in Stafford this welfare reform is a continuing concern. The local food bank, the House of Bread, claims to be busier than ever. A spokesperson said:
“It’s not just the six-week wait that people are struggling with. People come here who don’t have the skills to even apply. It’s all online – it relies on them having IT access or the internet.”
The evidence of Universal Credit claimants being forced to rely on food parcels is clear. The Trussell Trust have reported a 17% increase in the use of food banks in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out.
Stafford and Rural Homes manages over 6,000 properties in the area. The social landlord say they regularly have to provide food support to tenants as a result of welfare reform. Despite a limited roll-out of Universal Credit in the area, they report that all affected tenants have amassed rent arrears, and they have concerns over the wellbeing of their customers as the scheme is rolled out.
Like many others on low incomes, Paul didn’t have the safety net of a savings pot to fall back on. He had to wait nine weeks for his benefit payment, which he describes as having a ‘catastrophic’ impact on him.
“The helpline was unhelpful and cost me a fortune. It got to the point where I had to beg, and even cried. I’ve never experienced such a low. They wouldn’t even tell me when the next payment would be.”
How is such destitution allowed to continue? Reports of the devastating impact of the welfare reform programme were well known before the last election, but indications of growing intolerance from some sections of society are evident.
The House of Bread provides support in the form of meals, food packages, money, shelter, washing facilities, and social and emotional care. Shockingly, their work has brought them into conflict with both the Tory-led Stafford Borough Council and the local police. William Morris, House of Bread’s Director, explains the way society has become splintered on the issue of welfare: “In one year we had the threat of an ASBO and I also received an MBE”.
The kindness they show is evident, yet they are accused by some of creating the demand, are in receipt of regular hate mail, and have been threatened with an ASBO for giving tents to the homeless. But staff are clear about the need: “No one gets up and says, ‘I fancy a meal at the food bank today’. People need food because they haven’t got it, and they don’t have the funds to buy it. They’re desperate.”
Since 2010 politicians have been adept at vilifying the poor in a socially acceptable way. While the concept of the ‘undeserving poor’ had been banished to history, the Tories have won people over with their ‘tough love’ stance against ‘shirkers’.
George Osborne said that no individual would receive benefits totalling more than £26,000 – despite this being less than 1% of all claims. His statement gave the message that the poor were living a high life some working folk could only dream of… and this rhetoric has stuck.
Local Stafford MP, Jeremy Lefory, is a regular supporter and fundraiser for the House of Bread despite consistently voting for welfare cuts and failing to support Labour’s proposal to ‘pause and fix’ the Universal Credit system. This dichotomy is hard to reconcile. The Tories have created a belief that the poor are poor because they deserve it. They are workless, addicts, irresponsible with money, have amassed debt, or had too many children.
Jeanette is a mental health nurse who lives in Stafford. She lost her job when the private care home she worked in closed down. Jeanette was put onto Universal Credit and refers to the time she was unemployed as “the worst period in my life”.
Like Paul, Jeanette had no savings and had to wait nine weeks without payment: “I’d paid into this system all my working life yet I couldn’t get support when I needed it.”
After the nine-week wait, she owed her landlord £1,200 and was threatened with eviction. Now back in work, Jeanette is slowly paying back her debt but she believes the experience has affected her own mental health. She said:
“I can’t shake off the anxiety I developed during that time. To be without money or income for that long – for all my security to be threatened – I’ve carried around this sick feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach ever since.”
Evidence shows that Universal Credit is damaging people. Some have called it ‘the new poll tax’ but the same sense of outrage isn’t playing out. There are no mass protests and no government U-turn. The fact that the House of Bread continues to receive hate mail is testament to the ‘undeserving poor’ rhetoric our politicians have allowed to take hold.
Poverty isn’t about laziness or moral weakness: it is a result of the way in which we organise society, and the Tories have chosen to do so in a way that punishes the jobless.
When Beveridge wrote of the five ‘giant evils’ in 1942, I wonder if he considered that a return to such ‘want’ would be prevalent over 70 years later. Society doesn’t have to be organised in this way – it is up to us to wake up to the change that’s needed.
Stephanie Gee is an independent social worker based in Stafford. You can donate to support The House of Bread here: https://localgiving.org/donation/hob?emb=IOJEeb4PnhLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.