Why Universal Credit is a Universal Joke

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Photo credit: lydia_shiningbrightly via Foter.com / CC BY

When I relocated from London to Bristol earlier this year I wasn’t expecting to end up claiming benefits. With a bit of money in the bank, some festival work lined up, and several job applications underway, I genuinely believed that I would be able to support myself. Had my reasons for leaving London been different (I’ll save the details for another time) then I would have done the sensible thing and made sure that I had a permanent  job lined up before moving. But with my circumstances being  what they were, the most important thing to me at the time was returning quickly to where my family and friends are.

Had I realised just how little support would be available to me when I failed to find a job as quickly as I’d hoped, I may have done things a little differently.

The first problem I encountered after applying for Universal Credit was the unexpectedly long processing time. Having to wait over a month for my claim to be approved meant that I completely ran out of cash before my first payment arrived. Aware of how unhelpful this is for people with no money, Universal Credit offers advance payments to cover living costs during this time. Desperate for cash a few weeks after applying, I borrowed £300 under the agreement that this would be repaid out of my forthcoming allowance over a period of six months. So, before knowing how much money I was entitled to, or if my application had even been approved, I’d already accumulated a substantial new debt with the very system that I’d turned to for financial support. Great.

I’m extremely lucky to have an understanding landlord, and family and friends who are able and willing to help.

Six weeks later I received notification that £559 would be paid to me every month until my circumstances change. With my rent alone coming in at £650 per month, this news came as a bit of a shock. When I called the contact centre (charged at 45p per minute) to question the decision, I was told that nothing could be done to help. Why? Because people under the age of 35 are expected to live in shared accommodation, and are therefore not eligible for full housing support if they choose to live alone, as I have.

Lacking enough funds at this stage to cover my rent, let alone any bills or food, I found myself in bit of a pickle. Little did I know things were only going to get worse.

Part of the deal with Universal Credit is that a percentage of any earnings you make from employment is deducted from your monthly allowance. Whilst I was aware of this and think it’s fair, at no point did I consider that the processing of deductions might be delayed. Instead of accounting for the the bit of work that I did a few months ago straight away, Universal Credit has only just processed the deduction, several weeks after the wages were paid into my account. With no other income coming in until the end of this month due to unexpected illness and subsequent hospitalisation, this delay has had an enormous impact on my finances, leaving me with just over £100 to cover all of my outgoings.

So, how have I managed with so little money over the last few months? Well, I’m extremely lucky to have an understanding landlord, and family and friends who are able and willing to help. But it’s scary to imagine how many people must be struggling to make ends meet right now. Without the hot dinners and financial help that I’ve received from my nearest and dearest I would currently be very hungry and in hundreds of pounds worth of debt with my landlord, if not homeless. For those who aren’t so lucky and don’t have anyone to turn to, the outlook is pretty bleak.

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Maddie is a freelance writer, and life-long lover of literary fiction, with a particular interest in feminism, social justice and contemporary culture.