It’ll probably come as no surprise to you that my 2020 was a year of financial struggle. Coronavirus crashed the economy, destroyed industries and dismantled livelihoods across the world. Too many of us have experienced great loss – not just of loved ones but jobs, income and stability too.
These are all things I was never meant to lack after leaving university. When I handed in my dissertation, the last three years of my life bundled into one paper, last spring, I was led to believe I was on a clear pathway to my dream job.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, four months after leaving university, I had no job, no stable income and no certainty of what my future looked like. But, like thousands of others, I still had real life responsibilities: bills, rent, insurance, food expenses and more. With no income, all responsibility fell to my partner. For me, a 22-year-old recent graduate, and him, a full-time employed 25-year-old, moving into a new home together was supposed to be an exciting chapter in our lives. Quickly, it turned into the scariest.
One income was barely enough to survive. There were days we’d go without household basics and lived off canned foods we knew could last a lifetime – or else we skipped meals. I vividly remember ending month after month lucky if we had £10 left in our pocket.
Being such a stubborn person, I tried everything before I reached out for help, even taking to Facebook, Shpock and Gumtree to sell everything I knew I could live without.
Every day I stalked job boards, looking for any opportunity that could land me any kind of income. I didn’t care at all now about my dream job – now it was just about surviving. Being such a stubborn person, I tried everything before I reached out for help, even taking to Facebook, Shpock and Gumtree to sell everything I knew I could live without.
In the end I had no choice but to push self-pride aside and look to the government for help, and I applied for Universal Credit.
To say it felt degrading would be an understatement – I kept telling myself that I should be in a job by now, that I should be able to be comfortable. The societal stigma of having to rely on welfare made me like a failure, like that mythical stereotype of the lazy ‘benefit scrounger’ who didn’t want to pay their way in society.
Add to that the trope that my generation is ‘lucky’ to have so much opportunity and yet want everything ‘served’ to us, and it’s no surprise I felt spoiled, as though I should be glad for what little I had because others have less. But I knew if I didn’t go through with this and try to fill in the cracks of our financial problem, we would be in trouble.
It took six weeks, six tedious weeks, of signing endless pieces of paperwork and proving our case in patronising phone calls: “Date of birth? Where were you born? Proof of past employment? Proof of partner’s income. Where do you live? Where did you live? Proof of UK residency?” The list of info I had to provide was so long I questioned whether it was even worth it. Was it worth the extra mental strain? It had to be – because it was my last hope.
As a way of living, it simply isn’t one.
The first month of being accepted I received nothing, due to the timing of being assessed. As time went on, I’d slowly started receiving some money, but not nearly enough to live stably. I’d never received more than £250-300 a month – helpful for our food shop, car and phones, but the rest can’t even cover half of my housing bills. Whenever I received a payment my priority was to make sure my bills were paid off, because no car would mean no way of my partner getting to work, meaning no income leaving us with no roof over our heads. Any left-over money from bills, I’d bulk buy items on offer, batch cook and freeze meals just to make sure we’d have food every day.
As a way of living, it simply isn’t one. I try to keep in mind that for someone like me, a young recent university grad, this probably is not forever. And I have to believe that in another reality with no pandemic, I wouldn’t be in this situation.
Today, five months after first applying for Universal Credit, I am still unemployed and no less uncertain of what my future holds. I do, however, know I’ve learned there is no shame in asking for help in desperate times. We’ve all seen the ‘Britain on benefits’ shows that represent Britain as a crying welfare full of lazy, unmotivated ‘council house renters’ that pop out babies to claim more benefits. But the truth is that almost everyone who claims Universal Credit don’t want to.
Like me, they’re much more likely to be hard-working individuals who have found themselves in hard times. In this pandemic, they’re increasingly likely to have higher levels of education and have never asked for help beforehand.
But in the end, we’re all humans just trying to survive.
Holly Liston is a linguistics graduate and freelance journalist
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