'You can only spread out money so much'

In Part 2 of our series on why we’re marching on June 18, UniteLive investigates how families forced to rely on benefits are being squeezed like never before

Reading time: 6 min

Amid an unprecedented cost of living crisis, no one has been left untouched by the rising cost of literally everything as inflation soars to record-breaking levels.

This is why Unite is urging everyone – whether retired, not in work or employed – to attend the TUC’s cost of living demonstration on Saturday, June 18 in London. Unite is providing free transport to all members and their families.

Together, united as one voice, we can demand better from the government, which has so far failed to provide adequate support for those most in need. Meanwhile, hugely profitable companies have added to the squeeze by inflating prices even further and keeping their workers’ pay low in a bid to further increase already obscene profits.

As with the Covid pandemic, the current crisis has hit hardest those who are least able to cope. In May, the Resolution Foundation calculated that the disparity between the richest and poorest households is so stark that the poorest actually face an inflation rate that is more than 2 per cent higher than the wealthiest.

This is largely because the least well-off families in the UK spend a greater share of their family budget on energy bills, which have skyrocketed this year. And as food campaigner Jack Monroe highlighted earlier this year, prices of the least expensive food staples have seen the highest percentage increases – an assertion that was this week confirmed by the Office for National Statistics.

Unite Community member Kerry Wilks knows more than anyone just how tough times have become. As a widow and full-time unpaid carer of her three children, she has no option but to rely on Universal Credit – and it’s simply not enough to make ends meet.

“I was only just barely keeping my head above water before the [£20 a month] cut to Universal Credit last year,” she told UniteLive. “I’ve written up my household budget and now I’m actually nearly £15 in the red every single month.”

“I’ve noticed already with my food shopping that prices have gone up massively in the last few weeks and months. I’ve got to depend on my mum – I call her my fairy godmother — to buy my kids clothes, shoes and other items. You can only spread money out so much and there just isn’t any left to spread out.”

“People say it’s extreme when you’ve got to put a coat and jumper on indoors to keep warm – they think it’s made-up – but it’s not,” Kerry added. “This is what we’re dealing with now. My biggest fear is that in a few months’ time, I won’t be able to feed my children.”

Exactly like pensioners and those who are employed, the value of Kerry and others’ Universal Credit payments have been severely eroded by spiking inflation. This is because Universal Credit and other benefits are linked to the inflation rate from last September, when it stood at a mere 3.1 per cent.

With inflation now exceeding 11 per cent – a rate that is only expected to further increase – millions of families reliant on Universal Credit and other benefits will continue to suffer, as benefits are not due to be uprated again until next April.

Unions, anti-poverty campaigners and many politicians – even some Conservative politicians – urged chancellor Rishi Sunak to uprate benefits in line with inflation now. Others have also called for the £20 a month that was cut from Universal Credit last year to be restored, and extended to those on legacy benefits.

While Sunak did cave in to demands to target direct support to households reliant on benefits in an economic statement last week, as ever, the level of support has fallen far short of what so many millions desperately need. What’s more, the payments will be delivered only as one-offs, leaving families facing an uncertain future amid an inflationary crisis that may linger for many more months or even years to come.

Unite member and community debt adviser Jamie Thunder says he’s seeing first-hand the effects of government inaction in his work daily.

“Most of our clients don’t work because they cannot work through no fault of their own,” he told UniteLive. “It’s incredibly hard to see how their budgets will balance at the moment because, with benefit levels as low they are when prices are skyrocketing, they just don’t have enough money to live on. That’s the simple, blunt fact of it.

“The cost of living increases are astonishing at the moment – people simply cannot afford to live right now,” he added. “I’m seeing it daily and it is absolutely heart-breaking. The government needs to take this very seriously and do more to help the people who need it most.”

But as we’ve long seen with this government, it won’t take action unless it is forced to. That’s why we’re calling on everyone who can to make their voices heard by attending the TUC’s cost of living demonstration in London on Saturday, June 18.

Something has to change because we deserve better than this. We didn’t create this crisis – we shouldn’t have to pay for it now.

Unite members and their families can book FREE Unite transport from all our regions to the June 18 demonstration. You can find out more here.

By Hajera Blagg

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