Rebecca (not her real name) has narrowly escaped eviction from a hostel. She tries to eat on less than £20 a month. That doesn’t work so well, so she called into this London food bank a few days ago for some support. This 22-year-old travels two to three hours each way by bus across London to work weekend shifts for a retailer, but only earns £56 a week. There’s no more work on offer there, so she has to stick with what she’s got. Her jobseeker’s allowance amounts to £2.57 a week. She’s glad she doesn’t have children, ‘because I’m struggling to feed myself, let alone kids’. Welcome to the wonderful neo-Dickensian world without prospects that we’ve created for a growing number of young adults in London.
Despite the frustration and drudgery she faces each day, this young woman is generous, thoughtful and enterprising. The resilience and dignity she displays in the face of scandalous adversity is impressive. Her first words when she was given her emergency supply of food, were: ‘When I get a proper job I’m going to donate food to the food bank. I know how it helps – even just to get a can of soup. For me, that lasts for two meals. The staff here are friendly and that makes me feel a lot better, especially after that uncomfortable feeling I get at the job centre.’
Rebecca lives in the same hostel as Sarah, a woman of 28. Sarah was given an eviction notice by the Changing Lives housing association, telling her to move out last Friday at the end of her two month probation period. The council and the housing association responded to Sarah’s account here. Rebecca says she was also given an eviction notice, telling her to leave on the same day – but that the housing association has now changed its mind. Rebecca says the evictions didn’t go ahead and that both of them have been told they can stay. At least both women have a roof over their heads now.
She had to move away from the part of London she was living and working in and move to this borough. Here, she was given a place in the hostel. The council is paying for her housing while she’s there, but Rebecca has to find the hostel’s separate £60 a month service charge. She also spends £40 on her travel to work each month, has a £45 bill for her mobile phone, and repays debts of £40 a month. She’s been told by a party plan company that she must pay for left-over kit it supplied to her. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has also been deducting payments from her JSA for money it says she owed . ‘The DWP said I owed them £200 from when I was claiming JSA four years ago – it was only for a two month period. I don’t know if I’ve paid it off now.’
The little that’s left over goes on everything elase, including food. What she does to survive is to spend £5 a week on vegetables to turn into soup that last days. She misses being able to buy meat, because it’s so expensive. Now and again she can buy chicken.
What does she think about her situation? ‘I can’t afford clothes or any luxuries. I’ve been applying for jobs constantly, but I’ve never been able to get a full-time job. I love working where I am – both the customers coming into the store and my colleagues, so I’ve decided that until I get a (full-time) job, I will keep this going. I went on benefits when I was 16 and started a part-time job at 19. But as soon as I got a full-time job they cut my hours down and said they couldn’t afford to keep me. It’s not work’s fault they don’t have enough hours. I really enjoy my work.’
All she wants to do is work, but she feels self esteem issues may also now be holding her back. ‘I hate people thinking I’m not trying hard enough. When you’re having confidence issues it’s harder to get jobs. Recently I was told I was suitable for a job, but because I’m not confident enough I wasn’t getting it.’
She says that as soon as she finds a job she’s going to get somewhere else to live straight away. The worse thing, she says, is ‘feeling like I have to rely on other people – at the age of 22 I don’t want to do that’. The way society treats the young also pollutes their closest relationships with parents and partners. She says that her boyfriend, ‘thinks I rely on him for everything, and I don’t.’ She adds: ‘He says he doesn’t want to live with me, because he doesn’t think I can finance myself. I haven’t told him I go to the food bank. He doesn’t even understand why I go to the job centre.’ Her situation is obviously taking its toll on their relationship.
Rebecca says she had more money to live on before, when she was 16. ‘Back then I went to college, got income support, and had housing benefit.’
Guardian writer Hannah Fearn wrote recently about the campaign led by Citizen’s Income Trust and Basic Income UK to replace the ‘costly, complex benefits system’, with a citizen’s income – an ‘unconditional payment granted to every individual as a right of citizenship’. The proposal is to set it below the minumum wage, but would give a basic income of £7,000 (more for pensioner and those with severe disabilities). The idea is gaining support with key figures, including Labour MP John McDonnell. The article says that when a pilot project funded by Unicef in eight villages in India introduced a basic income, the outcome was that work increased. The article adds: ‘The cash in pockets led to small scale investments, such as the creation of new businesses, and women gained more than men.’
Hannah Fearn points out that the principle of means testing – ‘that we should only get something from the state if we prove we definitely need it – stands intact and unscrutinised with politicians simply tinkering with the goalposts’. Could the principle of a citizen’s income be a way to transform the currently dismal outcomes for Rebecca and her struggling generation, and bring some real equity, and a degree of vital autonomy?