So, I got a job! Yay! In the nick of time before my youngest child turns five years old in a few weeks, thus neatly avoiding being booted off the relatively fluffy Income Support onto Jobseeker’s Allowance and being treated as having the same ability to take work as any childless adult. I’ve been looking after my little family of one preschool and two school age kids on a combination of Income Support, Tax Credits, Child Benefit and Housing Benefit since I was made redundant in July last year. Eight months, which is the longest I’ve ever been officially ‘unemployed’. Despite having not done paid work for the first five years of my eldest’s life. Stay-at-home mums are only ‘unemployed’ if they’re single parents, you see. Everyone knows being on 24-hour call by yourself isn’t really work. Unless you’re dependent on a man rather than the state, in which case you’re a fine upstanding member of your community.
Anyway as I run round like a headless chicken trying to finalise my childcare arrangements so I can actually take this job, I’m aware that public perception of me has changed, just like that. I’m now a ‘striver’, ‘doing my best’, ‘a hardworking mum’ again, rather than a ‘shirker’, ‘entitled’, ‘lazy’. But for how long? It’s only a part time job, three full days a week, because my youngest is still not at school for another 5-6 months, and the cost of nursery is crippling even with tax credits help. I’m still not 100% sure I’m actually going to be any better off at all by taking the job, once I pay for childcare and lose some Housing Benefit – I’m only doing it so I can send him back to nursery, because he misses his friends, and because in the eyes of the DWP I have to take work now.
I’m also aware that once Universal Credit comes in, the job I’ve just taken won’t be ‘enough’ anymore. They’re going to roll out the euphemistically-titled ‘in-work conditionality’ for low-paid or part-time workers who like me are currently dependent on Housing Benefit and tax credits in or out of work. What this means is that until you are working the equivalent of a 35-hour week at minimum wage job, you will be required to look for more or better-paid work. And if you can’t find anything suitable, and they deem you not to be trying hard enough, they can sanction you by stopping some of your benefits. Not being able to find suitable or affordable childcare might not be a valid reason. It seems to be up to the whim of your advisor. You can see the ripple effects of this already as the tabloids are starting to run what seems like the usual stories about scrounging single mums, only it turns out they’re actually working. Holding down a part-time cleaning or care job because that’s all that’s open to you and looking after several kids isn’t respectable enough anymore, if you still need help with the rent.
Once my youngest starts school, my childcare costs will be a bit less but I’ll still have to pay after school club fees for three kids if I’m going to be able to take anything other than a 9.30-2.30pm weekday job, which is a) still only part-time so wouldn’t get me off the hook, and b) like hen’s teeth anyway. Then there’s dinner money x 3, school trips x 3, uniform x 3, shoes x 3… I’m unlikely to get free of Universal Credit anytime soon. So I’m going to enjoy this brief respite from society’s disapproval while I can. And I’m not going to look down on the people still one rung beneath me like I’m supposed to, like the tabloids and the government would like me to, because someone’s going to be stepping on my head again soon enough.