Saturday, 6 April 2013

£53 a week and what I used to know about living on benefits

This morning I wrote this post on facebook about Iain Duncan-Smith's assertion that he could live on £53 a week if he had to.  I reckon he could for one week.  More than that, I doubt it.
I've had to claim benefits in the past, at various times between 1983 and 1992, and after I left university though I didn't actually get anything that time, and I have been very very poor in my time, but it was a loooong time ago and I could not claim to know what it would be like now - except that I think it would be very hard.
The first time I claimed was when I left school in 1983, I was 18.  I was still living at home which was ok, though my mum worked she was pretty broke but she did at least own our house so rent wasn't a pressure on the household finances.
I had a few little one-off jobs every now and then, maybe I'd get £20 - £30 at a time, or I might get a tenner for babysitting.  My Unemployment Benefit was about £70 a fortnight, or £35 a week.  I had a purse with 2 sections and I used to religiously split my money in half for each week.  Now, I'm no economist, but using the inflation calculator at something that cost £35 in 1983 would now cost £104.30.  I don't know how benefit inflation works but even I can see that going from £35 to a maximum of £56.25 a week, which is the rate for 16-24 year olds, well, that doesn't seem like very much over the past 30 years.
Using the same calculator, even that most basic of foods, bread, increased by 147%  between 1999 and 2009.  Bread, the saviour of the hungry mum feeding her kids but forgoing a meal herself...the staff of life.
Another time when I had to sign-on my claim was bounced around for weeks and weeks.  I had no giro at all for 7 weeks.  My dad sent me a fiver once or twice, and if I managed to scrape together 30p I had to decide whether to buy a paper on jobs day or get a pint of milk.  I was lucky that my best friend's family lived nearby and would "accidentally have cooked too much food and could I go and help them eat it".  But I walked for 2 hours to the benefit office for an emergency and they refused, suggested I get into debt by borrowing from somewhere and so I walked 2 hours home.  Again, I was lucky because I had somewhere to live where I wasn't going to get chucked out, but I couldn't heat it.  Or do anything else.
When I was at university, as a mature student, I had long holidays with no income if I didn't work.  I got full grant which in 1992 was about £2500.  As a mature student I could have been eligible for an increased grant but I didn't qualify because I hadn't earned enough in the preceding few years.  The grant was paid in installments at the start of each term, but we weren't eligible to sign on during the holidays.  At Easter in my first year I managed to get a temp job but I had to walk to work for the first week as it was paid in arrears and I had no money for bus fares.  Or a packed lunch.  Oh my goodness we were poor back then.  I lived with my cousin and his girlfriend who were on benefits.  We bought the cheapest of everything in Kwiksave, we were always running into emergency credit on the electricity.  It was utterly miserable.  When our cupboards were empty they really were empty, except for a small pot of black pepper.
I remember going mad in the summer holidays when I got a job and got my first pay - I bought a chicken!  It was one of the most exciting things I'd bought for a year.
Anyway, the point of this is to say that I don't what it would be like now, but I know what it was like then.  I don't know if I could do it again, but I sure as hell wouldn't insult those who do have to subsist on so little by saying that I could do it thus subtly implying that it's easy or that  I am somehow better than them in some way.
A week would be no challenge, IDS would do it and swan back to his cosy lifestyle, he wouldn't be reformed or changed, he wouldn't run to Cameron and Osborne with cries of "We must stop this, you're wrong, we were wrong" he would simply re-enter his previous life having gained no insight into the realities of a life where every single financial decision will affect at least two other choices.
And that's what's wrong with the current governments.  No one understands, no one knows and no one will ever even consider that they might be wrong.