When you are on the breadline there’s always this fear at the back of your mind, says Ben. “You are constantly thinking: have I got enough to cover even the normal everyday basics? You get stuck in a cycle, living at this level of subsistence; it’s dehumanising, horrible.”
Ben, 39, is a former hospitality worker who lives in Warrington. A recovering alcoholic, he has been claiming universal credit for a year. It is hard, he says, but he reckons it is far worse for many other people: “In a sense, I’m in a fairly privileged situation,” he says.
What he means is that he is single, with no immediate dependants (he is living apart from his partner and child). He has time on his hands to search out bargains on the supermarket’s “reduce to clear” shelves. He can walk everywhere and not use the bus. “I can eat hand to mouth,” he says. “It sounds quite ‘survivalist’ I suppose.”
After paying a top up to his landlord, Recovery Homes, which is a specialist accommodation for recovering addicts, and child maintenance, Ben estimates he has £150 of his £360 a month universal credit left to cover basic living costs. It is just about do-able, he says, if you adopt a super-thrifty mindset.
“I buy staples in bulk. Let’s say I’m frugal with fruit and vegetables. Yoghurt was £1 a pot, now its £1.50, so that’s a luxury rarely indulged,” he says. Milk often feels a bit extravagant. Haircuts are tightly rationed– a £10 cut once every two months. “I haven’t had to use the food bank for a while now,” he adds cheerily.
Ben volunteers at Warrington food bank, part of the Trussell Trust network. There he sees up close the relentless stress endured by people he believes are “stuck in quicksand” and really struggling. “It’s heartbreaking to see the families – parents who are powerless to do what they need to do for their children.”
The food bank is a window into how things have got worse over the past year, he says. More people are coming for food parcels, and making repeated visits, and their situation rarely seems to improve. “I’ve witnessed that shift, where people have gone from ‘heating or eating’ to ‘clutching at straws’, where they can’t afford to do either.”
He praises the government’s cost of living support programme, but is unimpressed by its 10.1% uprating of universal credit from April, generous though it may seem. The basic rate will be £85 a week for someone like him. “When you are that far beneath the poverty line, 10% of very little is still very little.”
What does he make of Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust’s proposed essentials guarantee, which would raise his weekly basic allowance to £120? He reckons it is far from excessive. “I’d call £120 a week the ‘maintain-your-basic humanity’ level.”