When politicians talk about supporting “hard-working families” and “family values”, they’re inferring that anyone not in paid work or no longer in a marriage is a lesser being – definitely not quite one of us. In the real world away from the political rhetoric and reductive stereotypes, people like Steve (not his real name), are trying against the odds to create better lives for their children.
Steve is a talented graphic designer who had to give up his job producing material for record companies when his wife’s paranoid schizophrenia worsened and she could no longer look after their two children. Their marriage broke up about four years ago and his wife left the family home.
He came into our London food bank – one of nearly 400 run by the Trussell Trust in partnership with local churches and communities – recently for help. He presented a voucher given to him by Families First – a well-regarded local authority programme offering intensive support for families – and we gave him a supply of at least three days of emergency food. He needed the voucher because he had to spend some backdated benefit money on a second hand washing machine. This plunged him and his two children – a girl of 16 and a boy of 8 – into a deeper crisis.
Both children have full residence with their father. Their mother has been sectioned and is in hospital. Steve would love to do paid work, but feels that his children have been so traumatised by their mother’s illness that he needs to focus on being around for them. His daughter is angry and lashing out. He says: “Last night she started shouting abuse at me and calling me a c*** in front of her friend.”
He says his young son is beginning to be badly affected by his sister’s behaviour, while Steve has had his own issues with addiction to deal with. “I’m a recovering alcoholic, and I’ve gone a year without alcohol. I don’t control that obsession, but it’s been lifted by the programme that I’m on. It’s been alleviated by the process.”
The Chancellor George Osborne said today that “Britain’s economic plan is working.” He talked about the new transferable tax allowance for married couples and the “hard work of the British people paying off”. The Government may have “held its nerve” on austerity, but what price are people like Steve and his children paying for this? He’s seen child benefit frozen for three years since April 2011 and will be hit hard by a cap on welfare spending. From April 2014 working tax credits, child tax credits and benefits including housing benefit and income support will be capped at an annual increase of 1 per cent, instead of rising with inflation.
Gingerbread, the campaign group providing advice and support for single parents, said today that the Chancellor’s “warm words about an economy on the up will come as cold comfort for single parents – three-quarters of whom say they are worse off than they were a year ago.” Its chief executive Fiona Weir added: “A cap on welfare spending not only threatens a vital safety net for some of the most vulnerable in society, but it adds to the stigma for people – both in and out of work – who need support to make ends meet.”
Steve is a caring father, who couldn’t be doing more to fight for the long-term interests of his children. But the jackboot of austerity is landing down hard on this struggling family.