Looking at her dog Zeus staring forlornly up at her hoping for food, Barbara Whitehead feels an overwhelming sense of despair.
“If you can’t afford to feed yourself, you can’t feed your dog,” the 39-year-old mum-of-three tells HuffPost UK.
“My priority is to feed my children and my dog – and I’ve had days when I’ve not eaten anything myself.
“There have been times when my dog has had to go without when there’s been no food or money. I have even considered giving him up because I don’t want him to starve but he is part of the family.”
Barbara lives in Oldham, a town northeast of Manchester which was once the most productive cotton mill town in the world. But today, it has some of the worst levels of child poverty in the country and in 2016, it was named the most deprived town in England in a study by the Office for National Statistics.
Oldham was one of the areas that volunteered to be a pilot site for Universal Credit in 2013 in the hope it would simplify the benefits system and encourage more people back into work.
But seven years on, those hit by the benefits change tell a different story.
One housing association told HuffPost UK that it lost in the region of £400,000 in rent during the first year of Universal Credit – money which it won’t recover. Unlike housing benefit, which was paid direct to the association, Universal Credit is handed direct to the claimant. Currently, 41% of the housing association’s tenants are in arrears.
The social landlord says some of its customers are struggling so much due to the wait for Universal Credit and the problems they experience applying for it, in the last 12 months, they referred an unprecedented 199 people to food banks.
For people like Barbara, Universal Credit has proved to be anything but a saviour. She described to HuffPost UK how her life has been “a nightmare” since she was put on the controversial six-in-one benefit.
Barbara’s 17-year-old son Craig is autistic and his disability living allowance was stopped around 17 months ago. Barbara was put on Universal Credit and says she has been struggling ever since.
Life has been difficult for Barbara, who is a single mum. Her eldest son Craig was born very premature and that’s when she first began suffering from anxiety.
In November 2018, Barbara had a stillborn baby boy when she was almost five months pregnant. She says it was a difficult and stressful time in her life as a lot of things went wrong as she came out of an abusive relationship and was struggling for money.
She is on medication for depression and anxiety and admits she has felt suicidal at times. The only thing that has kept her going is her children and her dog.
When claimants are put on Universal Credit, they face a five-week wait for their first payment. But Barbara claims she didn’t get paid for months as she was “passed from pillar to post.”
Despite always being careful with money in the past, Barbara found herself spiralling into debt and she now owes thousands of pounds in arrears.
“My life has been a nightmare ever since I was put on Universal Credit.” she said. “I am not a reckless spender and I always saved what I could. Now, I owe around £5,000 in arrears for rent, gas, electric and water.
“At first, I was still trying to pay these people, but then I realised it was a choice of doing that or starving.”
I am basically living off the charity of strangers. It is degrading."
Barbara says she gets paid Universal Credit on the first of the month and by the 3rd, and after she has paid everything that is mandatory to pay, there is no money left.
“The money coming in doesn’t cover basic living costs. How can you budget your money when you are getting less money and it doesn’t cover your basic needs.”
Barbara says she has been surviving the tough times through the support of friends who have made her meals or given her money and in desperate periods, she has had to go to food banks.
“I am basically living off the charity of strangers. It is degrading. My mum and dad have even had to sort me out with food. That is upsetting relying on your parents when you’re grown up and have always been independent.
“It is horrible not being able to do simple things like provide for your children, especially when you have vulnerable children. It is my children I feel sorry for as they are missing out on things. The school donated Christmas presents to my daughter. I can’t afford to live, never mind do things like Christmas.
“I have felt suicidal as I feel inadequate as a parent and inadequate as a person.”
Barbara’s social landlord is housing association First Choice Homes Oldham which says it is seeing firsthand the devastating impact Universal Credit is having on people like Barbara.
As a result, the organisation has refocused its resources to support the most vulnerable and those most entrenched in poverty.
First Choice Homes Oldham has a Community Impact Team which supports customers with reducing their debt, increasing their disposable income, accessing benefits and affordable food and help with things like employment, hardship and energy switching. In 2019, the housing association referred 199 of its customers to food banks in Oldham.
Barbara says she couldn’t have coped without the support of her First Choice Homes support worker. “She has been a godsend and helped me so much and made life more bearable.”
Latest figures show more than 384,000 people in the North West are now receiving Universal Credit. Across Britain, more than 2.8 million people are now on the benefit system, which replaces six previous benefits with a single monthly payment.
Vinny Roche, chief executive of First Choice Homes Oldham told HuffPost UK that housing associations need to act as a final safety net where the system has failed people.
“The safety net for the most vulnerable in society has been completely eroded.” he said: “If they wanted to set up something to defeat the objectives it was meant to deliver, Universal Credit couldn’t have done a better job.”
He says he believes there will be a lost generation of people in the UK who are falling through the “ever widening holes in the safety net” and he says the role of housing associations needs to reflect this.
“The current system doesn’t work. We really need radical change if we are serious about fixing the safety net, reducing poverty and inequality and making sure there is a support network in place for the most vulnerable.
“The idea the state will take sole responsibility for dealing with the most vulnerable and tackling poverty and inequality is now unrealistic. In reality, it is never going to do this alone. We need to think differently and bring together the state, business, the third sector and wider society.”
People are going without heating, lighting or food – the basics that most of us take for granted."
Arrears at First Choice have risen by around £500,000 since Universal Credit came in in Oldham, which only has one job centre.
Currently, 3,402 of its tenants are on Universal Credit and 1,398 of them are in arrears. First Choice still has another 2,450 tenants to move over to Universal Credit.
But Roche says there are people who are slipping through the gaps. While they appear to be fine on paper - by paying their rent - there are some people who are then going without heating, lighting or food.
“We find that the people with the least money manage their money better as they have to know where every penny goes. When you look at the rent details, they are paying rent so everything seems fine. But when you get behind the front door, you realise it isn’t.”
Roche says a culmination of things including welfare benefit cuts and cuts to local authorities, the voluntary sector and the NHS have all pushed vulnerable people into a poverty crisis and that Universal Credit was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
His major criticism of Universal Credit is the five-week wait when people are having to borrow to survive. “You have some of the poorest people in the country having to wait weeks for their money.
“When they finally get their payment, they already owe a fortune to other people, or worse still, to loan sharks.
“The people in real need are now on less money, receive less welfare payments and the support mechanisms that once helped them have gone. Then the systems for applying for benefits and the sanctions are a lot more draconian.
“A combination of all these things is driving people into abject poverty.”
Ben Whetton and Gemma McCann find it laughable that Universal Credit claims to get people back into work, as the benefit actually resulted in Gemma dissolving her dream business.
The couple have two young children and Ben also has a teenage daughter. They had worked full time all their lives, but almost four years ago, Gemma launched her own business making personalised photo frames.
After two years, the business had become too busy for just her, especially in the run-up to peak periods such as Mother’s Day so Ben joined her and also became self employed.
Being a low income family, they relied on Universal Credit to make up the shortfall. At first, everything seemed fine, but just after Christmas 2018, they logged into their Universal Credit account and discovered the payment was £455 – well under half of what they usually received.
To their shock, they were told this was correct as after the probationary period of one year of them both being self employed, estimated figures for what the business should be earning would be used to calculate their payment rather than what they were actually bringing in.
“It hit us hard and we were worried about feeding our young children.” said Ben, 32. ”We had to massively cut back on our outgoings and cancelled our life insurance, our appliances insurance and our television contract.
″The reality for us was coming home to no food in the cupboards. We had always worked hard and paid our bills and it was a real kick in the teeth.”
The pair borrowed a cash advance to tide them over and realised they could not carry on with the business and made the heartbreaking decision to close it. Gemma now has a job with Royal Bank of Scotland as a clerk. Ben is unemployed while he considers his next move. He said: “We did everything above board and legit but were penalised for being self employed. I feel the Universal Credit should have been based on the business’s actual income rather than what they felt it should be bringing in.”
Michael O’Brien, 59, who lives alone, has been on Universal Credit twice and says the first time, he did not get paid for three months.
He told HuffPost UK he had been working as a site manager at a primary school in Oldham for 10 years but lost his job and went on Universal Credit.
“I struggle with reading and writing forms, but I am alright with DIY and working with my hands,” he said. “I get anxiety when I have to fill in forms and my mind goes blank.
“The first time I went on Universal Credit, I didn’t get any money for three months as they kept messing me about. I got myself into that much debt that when I did eventually get paid, I had to pay everything back and it took me a long time to get myself sorted.”
Sometimes things were so bad, I was only having one meal a day."
Michael admits he felt devastated after losing his job at the primary school and could not cope and ended up depressed and felt suicidal and did not work for some time.
He then got a job working for a builders firm but after the work ran out, the job finished and he ended up back on Universal Credit last year.
“Universal Credit does not leave you a lot to live on after you have paid your rent and bills.” he told HuffPost UK. “I am not one of those people who blows it all and I paid all my bills first.
“But this meant sometimes things were so bad, I was only having one meal a day. I even had to be given vouchers for the food bank as there was no money left after paying my rent and bills.”
Michael said his 26-year-old son who lives in Scotland even sent him money so he could pay for gas and electric or get some food. “That should not be happening. It should be the other way round and I did not like accepting money from my son. But I used to send him money when I was working when he was down on his luck, so he wanted to help me.”
Michael has just got a new job as a caretaker at a special school and is hoping things will work out so he can come off Universal Credit.
“Universal Credit stinks.” he said. “It definitely does not make life better for people. I was depressed all the time when I was on it and didn’t have any money and couldn’t do anything.
“I have always worked until I lost my job. I would sooner be working than be on Universal Credit.”
When HuffPost UK spoke to the Department of Work and Pensions about how Universal Credit is affecting people in Oldham, which was a test-bed for the benefit, it said the new system is helping people move into work faster and stay in work longer.
Minister for welfare delivery Will Quince said: “Universal Credit is helping to support thousands of people across the North West as they look for work.
“However, many people are still not aware of additional entitlements they may be eligible for, such as help with childcare and half price travel on rail and bus services.”
But for people like Barbara in Oldham, driven to despair and poverty, Universal Credit is definitely not the success story the government is making out.
Barbara said: “People should not be having to live like this in the UK in 2020. Universal Credit was brought in to help people but it is doing the complete opposite.
“Before I went on Universal Credit, we weren’t well off by any means. But I didn’t have any debt and there was food on the table.
“Universal Credit has pushed me into poverty and into debt. It is an absolute farce.”
“What upsets me most is that I know there are people out there who are more vulnerable than me who will be struggling.”