This one’s going to seem a bit self-indulgent. But bear with me.
I had the dreaded Brown Envelope Of Doom through the letterbox the other day. It was a letter from a Revenues and Benefits Officer at the council telling me my Housing Benefit’s been suspended. I get about three quarters of my rent paid by Housing Benefit, because I am a single mum of three and only work three days a week. I knew the letter was coming, because I filled in the annual review form they sent me truthfully and told them I’d had a payrise of £4 per week in November. This payrise tipped me over the threshold for paying NI contributions, so I haven’t seen all of it, but that doesn’t matter. It will have led to an overpayment of Housing Benefit, because when you work part-time on a low wage the taper is brutal. As soon as you earn a couple of quid more, they take it straight off you again. The same phenomenon means that even by working part-time I have to pay £116 a month of my Student Loan back and lose my kids’ entitlement to Free School Meals. Anyway, I worked out that it probably means they’ve overpaid me maybe £100 in total over the period in question. This letter arrived two days before my rent was due. Because they’ve immediately suspended payments, that meant instead of having to pay £150ish towards my rent, I suddenly had to find the full £650. With two days’ notice. I should point out here that my eldest daughter’s going on a compulsory residential school trip in September, they’re allowing us to pay for that in three instalments of £100, end May, end June and end August. So I’m already, er, a bit stretched. Luckily this isn’t the first time this has happened to me, so past experience has taught me to keep at least a month’s rent in an ISA at all times.
The letter asks me for payslips, P60 etc, including a payslip I haven’t received yet and won’t until around the tenth of June, then says a decision will be made based on the information I return. Past experience also tells me that this decision won’t be made quickly. So I’m expecting to probably have to pay all of next month’s rent too. I know I’ll get most of it back, because I know it’s only a small overpayment. But it’s going to totally screw my plans for the summer. This was going to be the first year I was stable enough to afford to take my kids away on holiday myself. I’ve been telling them ‘maybe…’ for years, then having to say that no, I can’t really afford to do it.
I had a running headfirst into a brick wall moment earlier, making small talk with the fabulously wealthy mum of my youngest son’s best friend from school. She asked what our plans are for the summer holiday, so I said although their father will be taking them away, I’m probably not taking them anywhere now because ‘money’s a bit tight’ (euphemism for ‘my Housing Benefit’s been suspended again so I’ve got to find £1000 by July on top of paying out £300 for my eldest’s school trip, bye bye savings’, because, y’know, screw telling her that). But said I might get them away to stay at a hostel in Perthshire, for a weekend. This was probably a lie tbh as I can’t see even that happening now. I won’t tell you what her holiday was going to be, just that it’ll be the third foreign holiday her family’s taken since February.
Anyway as I say this is all a bit me-me-me isn’t it? I don’t mean it to be. I’m well aware that there are others far worse off than me. I’m nowhere near the food bank stage, unlike an increasing number of people in a similar position. I had a little bit of money saved up from what my mum left me when she died nearly two years ago, and I had the spidey-sense to hang onto it for a Brown Envelope Day. My kids won’t starve. But the whole thing neatly illustrates the barriers facing people like me, who have to rely on benefits to pay the bills. I have three children. I am lucky to have an employer who gave me a fixed hours, 9-5, weekdays-only permanent contract (this is like gold dust in retail, so I’m hanging onto it even though the wages are rubbish). I can only work part-time, because their father provides the childcare, and he has to work too, so I’m constrained by what he’ll agree to do. If I were to use paid childcare, I would be worse off than I am now, because I only earn just above minimum wage. After school care for the three of them costs half of my wage. Holiday care costs about £28 per day more than I actually earn. I can’t do more hours, because childcare. If my employer gives me a payrise, the council will pay me less Housing Benefit (and screw my life up for two months while they decide how much less). Because I have to work part-time, I’m never going to earn enough not to need Housing Benefit to pay the rent on my private rental for the next seven or eight years. I can’t get a council or HA flat and cut my outgoings that way (been on the list for years). Every time I see the sentence ‘hard work is the route out of poverty’ it makes me do a bitter little laugh.
So here I am, stuck in this spiderweb safety net. It’s reasonably comfortable, most of the time. I can’t get out of it up the way by climbing. There doesn’t seem much point in struggling. But I, and the others caught in it, can fall through it at the stroke of a civil servant’s keyboard. That’s the thing about nets. They’re fragile, and full of holes.