I found out about the benefit cap back in 2017, about two months after my ex-husband left me. I got a letter from the job centre to say I had 39 weeks to find a job for 16 hours a week or more, or I would be hit by the benefit cap and my benefits would be reduced.
My children were five, three and the twins were one at the time. I’d just been served notice on my house due to the landlords not accepting housing benefit – my ex-husband refused to pay towards the joint tenancy. My rent was £900 a month, my housing benefit covered £750 a month and I had paid the remaining £150 from my child tax credits.
When I received the letter about the cap I started applying for jobs, I got offered a lunchtime assistant job at a school but it was only five hours a week – working only five hours meant I’d still be hit by the cap and I’d need to pay childcare for the twins, so I had to turn it down. When I went for a meeting at the job centre, they told me it wasn’t possible for me to work partly due to my impending eviction, but also due to childcare costs and advised me to wait until the twins got childcare funding.
The 39 weeks were up and my housing benefit got reduced by £600 per month. I would now receive just £150 a month, when I needed to pay £900. I tried to pay but knew I would end up in rent arrears.
Eventually me and the children were evicted and officially homeless, the van was packed with our belongings but we had nowhere to go. When I got to the council, I was told they has a two-bed flat for us in the city many miles from where we lived. I was obviously grateful, but knew I would struggle with getting my older boys to school. When I got to the flat it was filthy, it took six bottles of bleach and two days of constant cleaning to make it acceptable. I slept in the living room on my mattress, while the twins were in one room and the boys in the other, trying to keep things as normal as possible for them. Everything ended up mouldy in the three months we were there, my mattresses, clothes, bedding, plus any boxes that I took to the flat, it really was an awful experience.
I couldn’t afford to keep taking the boys to their school so I had to change schools to one closer. While homeless I was asking for help to move closer to my parents and brother, so they could support me getting back to work, or study to progress into work, the council and the Jobcentre, but no one actually helped.
Then, In the December, I got a call to say we had the offer of a home, it was a top floor maisonette with no garden or lift. It was a relief but also wasn’t practical with two-year-old twins and two flights of stairs, but when it was ready late January, we moved in.
When we moved it meant another school change for the boys. It took me two weeks to find them a school and they ended up in three different schools in six months. My four-year-old struggled with school, and was quite far behind with his learning due to the upheaval of it all, my six-year-old struggles making new friends and has taken a year to settle into the school.
I am still affected by the benefit cap; my rent is short by £85. I still have no money to save towards childcare costs, I worked out I would be paying £800 upfront for nursery after school and holiday clubs for me to work 16 hours a week.
I know I’m not alone in being hit hard by the benefit cap and it’s really unfair that it’s single parents with the youngest children who suffer most. Gingerbread, the charity that supports single parents, says that 76% of single parent household affected by the benefit cap have a pre-school aged child. Last week a Parliamentary Committee said that enough is enough and that households that are not expected to work under wider welfare rules should not be made to work to escape the cap.
If I could move closer to my parents, or if I had more help towards childcare costs including upfront fees that would help me move into work as my children get older. Capping my benefits while my children are so young just pushes us deeper into poverty. I live a very basic life, no phone contracts, no TV packages, I don’t smoke or drink, I buy second hand clothes, I cook all meals from scratch but I just can’t stretch my £7 a day any further.