From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill
A free social media book about the new British social underclass
‘It strikes me that media effortlessly promote their version of the
type of people we are and what universal credit does for us. But no
one knows how it feels and tastes and smells, and what the sense
of hope and shame and despair, and how it really is to be on this
benefit. But people like me do.’
Here is a Manchester Universal Credit claimant and writer reporting the truth.
My Universal credit monthly payment is £729.48. This arrives in my current account on the nineteenth of every month or the workday that precedes that date, should it happen to fall on a weekend. In return for receiving this I am required to attend two job centres - one standard classic "Job Centre" - or so it would appear from the outside - and one private sector service called PeoplePlus which is owned by a business entity named StandGuide. The Job Centre is part of the governmental Department for Work and Pensions, while PeoplePlus is funded by a collection of bodies including the European Union and The Skills Funding Agency.
This is my total income for the month. Out of it, I pay £411.66 in monthly rent to Bracken House via Sterling Properties. I pay £30 in council tax which is made up of £20 in arrears to a debt collection agency called Jacobs that is fond of bailiff-styled MUST PAY NOW letters fashioned primarily in red ink which I find quite amusing though I'm sure they are designed to scare people into sleepless nights. And I'm sure it succeeds.
I manage to combine my mobile phone, landline and fibre connection down to a total cost of around £50 per month. I pay a whacking £39 a month to Aviva for home contents insurance yet I consider it well worth the peace of mind. I have a handful of small payments going out which include Netflix (£7.49), Amazon Prime (£5.99), Apple iCloud data storage (£1.58), union membership (£2.17), an incoming and outgoing telephone call recording phone app (£3.79) political party membership (£2.00), and the water utilities bill (£10). In total these amount to £33.02 making my sum total of expenses, as mentioned above, work out at £563.68.
This leaves me with £165.80 for the calendar month which comes out at £5.45 per day.
Now, although I don't smoke or drink alcohol, or care to eat out or buy new clothes or even watch television - which is a good job since I'd have to buy a TV license - I am human and I do need to eat food and use things that are powered by electricity. OK. Maybe the electricity is a bit showy. I'm pretty sure they'll be some guy in a doorway in Soho reading these words on the eBook software of a stolen Nokia phone that he charges up in Starbucks when nobody is looking and a family of eight grouped into a tight huddle in an Indian slum tin hut reading this off a solar-powered lap-top bought with a micro-loan which will take thirty years to pay back in cash and buffalo milk - both these audiences shaking their heads and tutting (actually I believe the Indians would be nodding their heads - which is a charming cultural inflection that oft amuses me) and thinking "Electricity! Tah. Sheer decadence you big western Dandy Boy". Well, the Soho person might be western but I'm sure he or she would find a suitable pejorative that makes reference to my sheltered housing status.
Also, I don't have a washing machine so I do need the odd spare couple of quid for the laundry and to wash things in the kitchen sink. (Cue the Indians "What's wrong with the Ganges, man!"). Electricity in Briar Hill is on a meter with a plastic key that you take down to the off license on the corner and top up with cash. The hardware and general heating infrastructure in the building are not modern enough for what is known as a SmartMeter to be installed - which enables customers to manage their account online. The system suits me, however, since I soon realised that it is the best way to minimise my spend. I've perfected the art of letting the meter run down to about 14 pence (a couple of light switch flicks away from power-out - definitely not a stove burn. Forget heating the water.) By keeping a vigilant eye on the meter I found that I can micro-manage savings into my lifestyle that you haven't even heard of. Well, maybe your parents and grandparents have post-war and war-time austerity tales to regale you with - but otherwise - you can't imagine.
Add to this that I do not use the heaters - even in winter. I just put extra layers of clothes on - and I've got the monthly electric bill down to £25 a month. This chiefly consists of heating the water, using the stove and running my desktop computer and related hardware.
I'm good with food. I'm a bit of a health freak so besides running about sixty miles a month I like to eat a primarily sugar-free diet. I have no microwave oven or freezer and my fridge is tiny. Like a portable camper van edition. My food bill comes in at about £100 a month.
So add these into the maths and I'm now down to £40.80 per month remaining - or - £1.34 per day.
If you ever wonder why people who have been long-term unemployed appear a little scruffy around the edges - perhaps unshaven and with holes in their shoes and lacking social confidence because they haven't been out even to a coffee shop let alone a pub or restaurant - for months or years nor ever travelled on a bus or train or been able to buy anyone they care for as much as a birthday card - ever - I hope I'm solving the mystery for you.
Fortunately, I have Mum. Mum is a pensioner and not flush but she's the kindest person in the world who would give me her last penny - and often does - and she pays for my monthly gym membership and covers my food bills such that the hundreds of pounds that frees up enables me to buy a few books, catch a movie, enjoy a coffee each morning in a local cafe - that kind of thing.
But take me out of the equation for a moment because this is not my tale of woe - I am one of the lucky ones. One of the survivors. Just imagine how most people go to pieces, financially, socially and psychologically, in the mid to long-term under these conditions. Think how you would deal with it. Imagine the sense of shame that we as a society casually stack up at the door of these poor people - making them feel like they are not worth the life that is taking place all around of them.
Most people don't have guardian angel mums like me.