Natalie Williams
Six-week gap adds up to poverty

I am hopeless at maths. I mean, really bad. My sister’s an accountant and we joke that we got half a brain each – she’s brilliant at maths but can’t write very well. I’m mocked for my obsession with grammar, but think I may have dyscalculia.

So when I calculated last week that my local foodbank has seen an 82% increase in demand since Universal Credit was rolled out in Hastings, I assumed I’d messed up the sums.

Trussell Trust’s figures from April 2017 state that foodbanks in locations where a full rollout of Universal Credit has taken place see, on average, a 16.85% increase in referrals for emergency food.

So surely my 82% must be wrong?

Sadly, it wasn’t. After four other people checked my maths, it turns out that to our shock and horror, Hastings Foodbank really has seen an 82% increase in referrals since Universal Credit rolled out on 14 December 2016, to 11 September 2017 (the day I wrestled with percentages), compared to the same period the previous year.

To put this into context, for the same period a year earlier, we saw a 7% increase.

The BBC Sunday Politics Show came to Hastings Foodbank last week to report on the massive 82% rise. (You can watch it here.)

The 82% increase isn’t just because of Universal Credit – we’ve seen spikes in referrals for a number of reasons, some connected to UC (benefits changes and delays, debt, low income) and some not necessarily (homelessness). We also run a fuel bank, which means that people who might have been previously referred to a different foodbank are now referred to us instead if they need help with their gas and electricity as well as food.

However, the six-week gap between ending one type of benefit and being moved across to UC is obviously a major factor in the demand we’re experiencing now. People are being pushed into debt and are at breaking point. I sat in Hastings Foodbank last week hearing story after story of people in crisis because of the six-week gap.

I don’t know about you, but if my income were stopped for six weeks, I would struggle to keep on top of my bills. I would feel deeply anxious and fearful. My first port of call would be to see if I could borrow money from my mum or a friend, but what if I didn’t have family or friends in a position to help? Many of those coming to the foodbank don’t have people around them who can support them financially when crisis hits.

And this isn’t the full rollout yet. So far only those in my town who are new claimants or who need to change their claim are being moved across to Universal Credit. Those on benefits who haven’t needed to change their claim for any reason since 14 December 2016 have remained on the previous types of benefits. The Government’s current plan is for everyone to go onto Universal Credit in 2019.

One of the questions I was asked during the interview for the Sunday Politics Show was: “Other charities are calling for the Government to pause the rollout of Universal Credit to rethink. Do you agree?”

I’m glad that my answer wasn’t show on TV. I said that I think politicians of all persuasions should have a serious look at this six-week gap. I meant it, but I wish I’d answered more emphatically that yes, the Government simply must pause the rollout until the flaws in the system have been looked at and rectified.

Whatever you think of Universal Credit in general, it’s a fact that people who are just about managing are being plunged deeper into poverty by the ill-conceived process of transfer from existing benefits to UC.

I’ve been feeling a restless anger over the last week at the injustice of it. I’ve argued with myself – surely no one ‘deserves’ benefits and therefore people aren’t entitled to having money every week; surely we should all be thankful there is a safety net and if there’s a six-week gap, well we should be grateful the other 46 weeks of the year are covered?

But I keep coming back to the fact that government exists in a democracy to ensure that society is fair and just, that individuals can thrive so that communities collectively flourish. Taking care of the most vulnerable is something that should be at the top of the priority list for governments AND churches. It’s not an optional extra for either group.

Yes, the welfare system needs reform. Yes, if people can work, it’s far more beneficial for them and for society if they do. But when there aren’t enough jobs around, when people are exploited through zero hour contracts, when parents have to buy specific school uniforms rather than cheaper alternatives, when ovens break down unexpectedly and people need to flee domestic violence and even being in secure work is no guarantee you can afford the essentials…

Then it becomes a matter of justice. It’s good that churches like yours and mine are stepping up and filling the gaps in state provision, but we need the Government to act too. Churches cannot replace governments when it comes to drafting policies that lift people out of poverty rather than pushing them further into it. But we can put pressure on politicians to take this seriously. We see the consequences of their legislation as it affects people in devastating ways. We see the impact that goes far beyond six weeks and for some will set them back years from getting on their feet again.

Just as we have a responsibility to help those in need, we have an equally important responsibility to speak up and not stay silent about a system that is failing some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our communities.

This blog was also posted on the Huffington Post website on 2 October 2017.