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Living on benefits

£53 a week. Could you do it? Most people think not.  Interestingly, those on higher incomes are more likely to think that they could do it than those on lower incomes.

Iain Duncan Smith has dismissed 460 000 people’s request that he live on £53/week as a media stunt.

Polly Toynbee tried it, back in 2003. She too originally dismissed it – because she considered the new minimum wage of £4.10/hr to be impossible to live on. She said that, “Every time I thought about my own gold-plated life as a journalist – the taxis, the Guardian’s car, my mobile phone, eating out, or the gifts for my families and what’s called ‘discretionary spending’ on pleasing non-necessities – it seemed undoable.” But she did try, and discovered what a low income is like – in debt from day one.

Emma Vardy took on the £53/week challenge. Her first tweet after starting (where did she get internet from?) read, “Barely an hour since I took on the challenge & already I’ve learnt it’s a minefield simply to understand what you’re entitled too!” She bought coleslaw, because it was cheaper than fresh ingredients. Her first evening meal cost just 67p – sausages, new potatoes and vegetables with gravy. She could only afford internet because it was split between her five-member household.

As was repeatedly pointed out on twitter, this was okay – as long as nothing broke. There was no money for repairs, however penny-pinching she was – and she pinched £1.42 out of her budget by using two supermarkets and buying each item wherever it was cheapest. Of note to women is that no feminine hygiene products were bought during this week. The 75p she had left at the end wouldn’t cover those items, or mend breakdowns, and certainly no nest egg for a rainy day, as Baroness Thatcher recommended.

Zoe Williams tried it, including her children in the experience. Their food came out of child benefit (presumably then there was no money left for clothes or any other necessities), but it didn’t stretch to meat for them. She discovered she couldn’t cycle, because she’d get too hungry, and she couldn’t afford the food. Zoe Williams was out of money less than half-way through. She concluded, saying “With kids, you can’t leave the house; you just don’t have the contingency budget. Families I used to regard with sympathy, I now regard with awe.”

The Telegraph reported on people for whom this life is enforced, not a choice. Lorna Sculley, who has only £50 a week to live on – not including bills – for herself and her three boys. They have spent the last two Christmases at a food bank. Debbie Garrity has her budget laid out clearly. Her food budget has recently halved to £10 a week, because she now has to contribute £10 to her rent for under-occupancy. In winter, she can save electricity by storing food outside rather than in a fridge.

The government wants to tackle ‘idleness.’ But, as the Telegraph reported, the current system is trapping people in idleness. They are idle because they are poor, not the other way round.

If you have little money, how can you spend hours searching for jobs on the internet? How do you get to interview after interview – assuming you were offered one in the first place? How do you move to a different area with better job potential when you can’t pay the deposit or the agent’s fees? How do you pay for a training course to improve your skills? How can you afford to volunteer to improve your experience of working?

What happens if something breaks?

Iain Duncan Smith said it was “a stunt to avoid the reality that we inherited a bust system – financially bust and morally bust.” A system that leaves people with so little money that they can’t afford to seek work – that is a system that is bust. It’s not that these people are better off on benefits than in work; in almost every conceivable situation, people are better off in work. It’s that their income is so small that the bus fare, the interview clothes, the internet search, the paper applications, the newspaper ads search are all beyond their budget. You need money to look for work, but the benefits system is so morally bust that the government would rather blame the people than recognise that a lack of money to find jobs and a lack of jobs to find in a recession are the trap that keeps people in poverty.


Emma Vardy: ‏ @BBCEmmaV

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