Universal Credit: Lifeline to punchline

Encouraged by proposed government cuts to Universal Credit, many people’s classism and prejudice against low-income families is showing.

ABOVE: Boris Johnson [photo credit to European Press Agency]

In August of last year, I was getting ready to start a Masters course in Journalism. I had signed a lease on a house, and meticulously worked out all of my finances for the year. The loan for an MA in 2020 was £11,222, and is given to students as a lump sum. Once my tuition fees were paid, I had just enough money to cover my rent, but would need another source of income to live on, so I had been scanning Indeed and other websites for jobs. Though it was daunting, I was beyond excited to start the next chapter of my academic life.

When the course was rescheduled to try and preserve the in-person teaching that was promised, I suddenly had six months of empty, unplanned, unaccounted for time ahead of me. I had no source of income, and no hopes of finding something, as I’d already been applying to any vacancy that I could feasibly secure. Had it not been for my parents being able to move money around and help me pay my bills, I would have been completely stranded. This was a short-term solution, though, as my parents are self-employed artists, so I signed up for Universal Credit. Luckily, I have not been raised to see needing benefits as a negative thing, so I felt no shame or embarrassment about doing so.

After I had applied and filled out the appropriate forms, I was told that it would take thirty days for my application to be processed and any money to reach me. By this point, I was already in debt to my parents and housemate. Though I was by no means starving, the anxiety of waiting for the financial support I needed simply to keep living in the house I had signed a contract for was nauseating. I genuinely cannot imagine being told to wait thirty days if you don’t know how you’re going to buy food tomorrow, or if you’ve already spent two weeks with no heating in your home. The thought becomes even more bleak when you factor young children into such a situation.

Thirty days went by, and I had heard nothing. Three days after this deadline, I finally called Universal Credit to ask what the issue was. I was told that the reason I’d not gotten any money was that a phone call they were meant to conduct weeks ago hadn’t happened- somehow, I’d just slipped through the cracks. They carried out the phone call, which consisted of asking me about my job experience, what kind of work I needed, and how I had been looking for jobs. It took all of twenty minutes, and once it was done, the sum of money I was entitled to had appeared in my bank account. Though the people I spoke to directly were incredibly helpful and apologetic, I cannot help but imagine if this delay had happened to someone who was in much more dire need. It would be a crushing blow to think that your lifeline would arrive on a certain day, only to see that there was nothing there to help you, and that all of it was through no fault of your own.

I was on Universal Credit a total of eight weeks before a job opportunity landed in my lap, by pure chance, via a friend of mine. Before it did, though, I applied to over two hundred jobs. These ranged from retail positions, to administrative assistants, to waiting tables, to hotel vacancies. From all of those, I had one interview for a supermarket job, which I didn’t get, one consideration for a note-taking role, which fell silent after I responded, and maybe fifty or so rejection emails. The rest either didn’t respond at all, or simply removed the listing from their website.

I remember meeting up for a catch-up with a fellow Graduate friend of mine who was in a similar position to me- her Masters course in Edinburgh had been completely cancelled. When we started to talk about our job hunts, neither of us were particularly surprised to discover that we were applying for the exact same jobs. We joked about it, but out of necessity. It was a ‘laugh or you’ll cry’ kind of situation. At the same time, in Manchester, a restaurant put up a vacancy for a receptionist job. In 24 hours, there were over one thousand applicants, many of which were hideously over-qualified. It was pretty bleak.

Had it not been for the money that Universal Credit sent me, I would have had to cancel my lease, leaving my housemate to frantically search for someone to take my room, abandon the city that I’ve made my home in for three years, and move back in with my parents. It was a genuine lifesaver, and I feel very lucky that I still had other, if incredibly undesirable, options. A huge number people on benefits rely on them completely, and have nothing to fall back on if the system fails them even more than it already has. They can either hope for the best from the government or accept homelessness.

I’ve seen a lot of jokes online about people who claim Universal Credit. The first was a tweet: ‘What in the name of universal credit is this picture’, above a screenshot of someone’s public Snapchat story. The photo shows a selection of chocolate and sweets, all of which are the unbranded type that you would get from a low-budget supermarket. The caption expresses gratitude for the food: ‘Thanks babe you know who you are’ (the joke, I guess, is that someone would be thankful for receiving unbranded snacks). When you search for this phrase on Twitter, the results are pretty evenly split between people calling out the classist ideology behind this joke and people using it as an insult. The latter are always referring to images or videos of people who they perceive to be low class, and in a derogatory way. It is grim.

The ridicule of people who have needed to claim financial support continues with rhetorics like the one below. It was tweeted by someone called William, in response to a deleted tweet:

‘How many on universal credit drink alcohol in the house and the whole family have iPhones? They spend their benefits on the wrong things and then say they don’t get enough money. PRIORITISE.’

Twitter user William

First of all, the idea that technology is a luxury is a completely backwards one. Pretty much the entire world functions online now, even before COVID-19 created even more limitations for in-person contact. I have been working since the age of 16 and have never been successful in giving a printed CV to anyone in a shop- they always directed me to an online form or application. The cheaper choices of smartphone are limited too, as older Apple products don’t even work anymore because of constantly updating iOS softwares. How can anyone be expected to apply for jobs or even log into their own Universal Credit account if they don’t have access to an up-to-date computer or a fairly new smartphone?

Furthermore, let us actually imagine the bleakness of a parent selling her children’s iPhones due to a lack of money. Those kids are then completely isolated from their friends, who will all have smartphones, or, at least, an internet connection. If there are multiple children in the house, and they don’t each have their own personal computer (which I’m sure William would also find offensive), then how does online schooling or getting through homework factor into this piece of advice? I presume that William, if they had it their way, would have every child of a low-income family on a 2008 Nokia, because, as we all know, young people thrive best when they are punished for their parents’ financial problems.

The idea that only people who earn their income at a job should be allowed to enjoy certain aspects of life comes from an insidious capitalist mindset. To people like William, you are not of value if you don’t fit into the expectations of a society which demands that you to dedicate yourself to a job. If you don’t work a fourty hour week or pick up every extra shift possible at Aldi, you’re not allowed to buy a bottle of wine. If you had a job but needed to quit because of a disability or chronic illness, it is time to give up that Netflix subscription. If you’re spending multiple hours a day applying for every and any job that you can, but not getting any responses, too bad! It’s your own fault that you have no money, and everything would be fixed if you were to sell your iPhone and just prioritise.

The elitism and lack of empathy that these people seem to have for anyone who doesn’t fit their idea of successful or hard working is sickening. Those struggling for money come in all shapes, from all backgrounds, and cannot be stereotyped. I’m sure that very few people would look at me and make a Universal Credit joke, but would do so for someone who has never claimed benefits, but who might fit a narrow-minded version of ‘poor’. People claim benefits because of many various reasons, and they don’t owe you a justification for doing do. The last thing someone who may be severely ill, or grieving, or struggling every day to feed their children needs is to be mocked for asking for help.

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