Recently the BBC published an article about how people suffering from the benefits cuts should budget (Here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22065978). For me it once again raised the question that's been hovering since the cuts themselves were first introduced: has anyone asked those on benefits how they're affected? It seemed to me that the MP's making these cuts didn't stop to think how people's lives would be affected when they came up with this average total of the cost of living. So I decided to ask someone who has been directly affected, my mother.
I'm a first year student at UEA which is four hours away from home. Naturally I'm not back much. When organising for me to go home for the summer we discovered that if I wanted to get a job she would have to pay extra council tax. Knowing that having me home would mean paying more for food, electricity and water I planned to work in order to help with costs as my loan wouldn't last the entire summer. Unfortunately I now can't go home for a long period of the holidays.
My mum has also had her housing benefit cut. This means finding extra money to pay her rent each week. Working isn't really possible as multiple knee surgeries mean she can't stand for long periods of time which rules out shop work. She has the qualifications to do office or secretarial work but she also has bi-polar and suffers from panic attacks. While this is under control with medication, some days are more difficult than others and she's unable to leave the house. While I'm sure there are understanding employers out there, they are unfortunately few and far between.
These recent cuts were put into place just as the cold weather hit meaning when I went home at the beginning of April, my mum was having to choose between food and heating. It was snowing outside: wearing multiple layers and using blankets only do so much when it's that cold. The choice seemed obvious. But the fact that she even had to make this choice seemed, quite frankly, disgusting to me.
The cuts aren't the only problem though. Delays in benefits can be disastrous for those receiving them and it occurs more often than it should. When you're operating on such a tight budget, any hiccup in receiving money has a knock-on effect. If your housing benefit, for example, arrives a week late and you're paying rent on a weekly basis, what do you do for that week? Do you prioritise food over rent?
In the BBC article mentioned above Conservative MP, Alec Shelbrooke, suggests a welfare card that would only allow users to buy essentials such as food. When I first read this I was stunned. Obviously people on a tight budget should be a little more careful as to what they spend it on, this is common sense. But actually restricting what people on benefits spend their money on? How could that be a universal system? People's needs are as individual as they themselves are. My mum has a Sky subscription that came included with her phone line and has the added bonus of Wi-Fi. She got this at a time where they were offering a deal and, through bargaining with the skills of a professional haggler, has managed to keep the price down. Without her TV she would spend her evenings alone and in silence - we don't have a radio in the house. Is this what people on benefits are expected to do? Mum doesn't go out often because she can't afford it so being able to watch Bones in the evening is her way of relaxing. Restricting people on benefits to only spending their money on pre-decided items comes across as incredibly patronising to me. It's as if the government are punishing those who've had to ask them for help by treating them as children.
So following in the footsteps of other bloggers before me, I challenge the policy makers to live on £53 a week. But I extend the challenge. Rather than doing this in their own homes, do it in a council flat knowing that by being there and requiring the help of the government, they won't be able to see their child over the summer holidays. And then tell me that the cuts won't affect people's lives negatively.