For far too long, there has been a sense of shame and embarrassment attached to claiming benefits in the UK. Here, three women explain how Universal Credit has helped them to survive during the pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused thousands of redundancies across the UK. With the furlough scheme extended until March 2021 and tier three restrictions pausing the retail and hospitality sectors, this is only set to get worse. According to the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the unemployment rate rose to 4.9% in the three months to October, with the jobless total up to 1.7 million people.
This of course means that more people are claiming Universal Credit (UC) in order to have enough money for rent, food and daily living expenses. And a BBC analysis of figures from ONS has found that women under 30 are the worst hit. Around 344,000 young women are currently claiming unemployment benefits, a figure that more than doubled between March and November – with the second-biggest percentage rise among any age group.
UC is a new government benefit system for people out of work or on a low income, replacing six existing benefits with one overall payment. It has faced constant criticism while being rolled out across the UK over recent years, mostly down to the fact that it usually takes five weeks from the claim date to getting the first payment.
But while nobody wants to rely on benefits, the fact is that social welfare is there to help us when we need it. There should be no shame or embarrassment in the process, but it has long been attached to it. You only need to look at tabloid headlines, ignorant comments (and policies) made by politicians, and the predictable portrayal of families on benefits in documentaries and dramas.
Perhaps, the one small silver lining to come out of all this, is the breaking down of the stigma that has been attached to benefits for too long. And three women have shared their stories with Stylist to illustrate this.
“It will give me opportunities to find a job”
Take Beth, a 22-year-old occupational therapist graduate who lives with her mum in North Yorkshire and recently signed on for UC after a string of unsuccessful job interviews.
“I didn’t know much about Universal Credit,” she says. “I only found out about it recently through my friend who is in the same situation. To be honest, I was surprised when I realised it’s the new name for Job Seekers Allowance, which I’d heard being talked about a few times while growing up – I associated that term with people who just can’t afford anything, and I never thought I’d be claiming it.
But Beth says that, because she knows how hard she is working to find a job in such a tough time, she doesn’t feel at all “embarrassed” about claiming benefits, especially when her peers are doing also using it: “It will give me opportunities to find a job. If I’m still in this situation in six months’ time, it will affect my confidence and self-worth, but that’s more to do with feeling ‘unemployable’ than embarrassment over ‘having to rely on benefits’.”
“It’s been an absolute lifeline for me”
Lucy, a 30-year-old London, was left feeling “helpless” and “depressed” when she had to sign on for UC earlier this year, but it actually ended up affording her the opportunity to take her career in a new direction.
“After working as head of PR for a well-known hospitality company for four years, I was suddenly made redundant in December 2019 just before the pandemic hit,” Lucy explains. “After getting over the initial feelings of embarrassment, shock, and shitting myself, I realised this was a blessing in disguise. I was forced to take the jump into freelance PR I’d been considering for years, and found that I loved working for myself. I quickly built a waiting list of clients from word of mouth and was loving life.”
However, fast forward a few months to the middle of the pandemic’s first wave and Lucy’s clients started to drop out: “I was back to worrying once again about how I was going to live and make money. I was one of the unlucky ones who ‘fell through the gap’ of the furlough scheme and couldn’t claim the freelance government support because I had only been freelance a few months.”
Lucy’s only option was to look at getting Universal Credit: “I learned this was the same thing as ‘the dole’ – something I was on for about three weeks when I was 18 looking for a job and involved lots of paperwork and trips to a particularly dismal Job Centre. I couldn’t help but feel really depressed about this and suddenly helpless about not being able to earn my own money.”
But Lucy says that, despite its reputation for being a “complete nightmare” to set up, she actually found it quick and simple: “They are flexible too so if I did earn some money by picking up a client one month they could balance that out for me and pay me less. It’s been an absolute lifeline for me and it led me to launch an inclusive and affordable online PR membership called PR for the People.”
“You have no idea how incredibly relieved I was when I got my first advanced payment”
And 27-year-old lifestyle blogger and hospitality worker Ebun Oluwole in Manchester was left with “just enough” money to survive on at the start of the pandemic when she was only being paid part of her day job income.
“Around June, when the first lockdown was lifted, the uncertainty of not having a job or a decent income hit me really hard,” she shares. “I got really stressed and anxious which affected my mental health.”
Ebun’s flatmate, who left his job just before the pandemic began, explained to her that he was able to pay his rent through Universal Credit: “He advised me to start a claim, especially since the hospitality industry would be the last to recover from the pandemic. You have no idea how incredibly relieved I was when I got my first advanced payment. It felt like all the stress from the entire pandemic briefly went out of the window.”
She says that UC has been a “great support” during this period while she tried to generate income from her blog: “Even though Universal Credit definitely has its shortcomings and can be improved on a lot, I’d love to give them some credit for coming through for me during this pandemic.”
While all three women are focused on regaining control of their careers and being financially independent, their experiences are proof that there is absolutely no shame in seeking financial help, pandemic or no pandemic.