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Tuesday, 28 July 2015

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Day-to-day grind of making ends meet

MODERN LIFE: Lecturer Fiona Donaldson (standing, back left) with members of the employability course held at Whitehaven Pottery, organised through Howgill Family Centre and Lakes College West Cumbria. The women talked about how they feel about changes to benefit, the stigma of struggling, about debt and how Christmas affects them.

What is your definition of poor? Being homeless? Not having a penny to your name? Rummaging in bins for food? In fact you are said to be living in poverty if your household income is less than £12,600 or 60 per cent of the average income before housing costs. In these articles, JULIE MORGAN talks to those in Copeland will be affected by the changes – and the organisations trying to help them.

THE festive season is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration. For weeks we are bombarded with images of happy families gathering around roaring fires and lavishly decorated trees, facing tables groaning with food and unwrapping gifts of iPads and expensive perfumes.

It is a seductive sight and one we are familiar with as the stores try to induce us to spend lavishly.

But for many families who rely on benefits, it is a reminder of the strain that can be felt, managing an ever-diminishing budget: the day-to-day grind of trying to make ends meet, working how much heating they can afford, what essential foods they can do without and how to explain to the kids that “not everyone has a Blackberry’’.

I talked to a group of women who are attending an employability course (level II), organised through Howgill Family Centre and Lakes College West Cumbria. The women talked anonymously, but honestly, about how they feel about changes to benefit, the stigma of struggling, about debt and how Christmas affects them.

They were attending the course to help them look at their skills which could be used when applying for a job as well as building confidence. Work, they said, would give them “a sense of value” and “set an example to my children”. One mother said simply: “I would just like to have my own money.”

Next year will see the introduction of Universal Credit, a new single payment for people who are looking for work or are on a low income. The Government says it will help claimants and their families to become more independent and will simplify the benefits system by bringing together a range of working-age benefits into a single streamlined payment.

While the women all desired the opportunity to earn more money, they were worried about childcare. UC is aimed at encouraging people into full-time work, but if you are a single mother, working 39 hours a week takes a lot of organising.

“It would be great to work,” said one mother, “but who would pick up my kids from school and look after them in the holidays?”

Due to the benefits system many single mothers find themselves financially better off living on their own, having more children, not holding down a job.

One woman said: “I was told by the benefits office that if I couldn’t find a job, I’d make more money having more children. It seems shocking but they said it.”

Another mother explained how she received £550 a month as well as having her rent and council tax paid. “My partner, who was working and also earned £550 a month, moved in and I thought finally we would have enough. But we lost a lot of money when he moved in.” she said. “When you only have enough to manage it is easy to understand why many women don’t want to lose the safety net of benefits.”

The UC will also see benefits paid as a monthly lump sum. “It is worrying, because some people will just blow the money in the first few days,” one woman said. “Rent money is also going to be paid directly to claimants, so if some families spend all that money then they will find themselves out on the streets. I worry what will happen to their children.”

The reality of debt never leaves them, the group said. One woman told how her debt had taken over her life and she wouldn’t open the curtains, open letters or leave the house. Over the past few years and with support from organisations, including the Citizens Advice Bureau, she has finally cleared what she owes.

“I am never going back to that lifestyle,” she said.

Other women tell of the loan companies who target those on benefits. “One firm left shopping vouchers,” one mother said. “I didn’t want them but they left them at my house. I ignored them for as long as I could but then I needed food and so I ended up using them.

“The point is they try and tempt us because they know we need the money, but it is so expensive to pay back.”

The women all championed the Credit Union which offers help in managing money and points them in the right direction if they need help with their finances.

“Loan companies always come knocking,” said another woman. “They go to the estates where they know people will take their money. Where I live, only four homes out of 15 don’t owe money to those companies.”

Another mother said: “They will wait outside the post office for us after we pick up our benefits. They know where to find us.”

For those families who rely on benefits, there is also pressure to spend money on their children. The women are all aware of the harsh realities of their children being judged because they are on benefits, of taking handouts, of appearing “different”.

“We don’t want our children to be bullied because they don’t have the right clothes,” said one mother-of-two. “It didn’t matter so much when we were kids, but it is really important now. When your children get to secondary school there is real pressure for them to look the part.”

The women talk about how their children won’t take cut-price food in their packed lunches in case they are judged by their peers. Subsequently, the branded foodstuff goes to school, the cheap crisps remain in the cupboard at home.

Christmas is one of the worst times. “Our kids want to be like everyone else and ask for Blackberrys and iPhones. It is really hard,” one mother said.

They agreed that buying for the festive season can leave them in debt for the whole year. One woman admitting to spending £400 on her child this Christmas.

The women know falling into debt to buy presents doesn’t help their situation, but it takes a strong-hearted parent to deny their child the toys, clothes and phones which help them “fit in”.

On the employability course, led by lecturer Fiona Donaldson, the women discuss issues which hold them back, look at motivation and practise presentation skills and writing reports.

Fiona said: “The aim is to show them what skills they have and how they can transfer them. They need to value the skills they have.”

All the women are trying to improve their lives to prove to their children there is a better life. They are proud of their achievements and are determined to succeed.

One mother added: “It is tough when there isn’t any money for extras and treats. But I wouldn’t want to get to the point when I had to accept food parcels, it would feel as if I’d failed.”

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