Welfare reforms

Our Prime Minister David Cameron today complained in an interview about the cost of Housing Benefit for under twenty-fives. This is a subject I feel very strongly about, and I feel myself quite qualified to talk on this issue due to personal experience.

Having just left university age twenty-one in order to take up a 37-hour per week job at £6.98 per hour I was renting a flat with my boyfriend, who was himself working over 45 hours per week on minimum wage. This continued for three months, then my boyfriend was unexpectedly offered a university place. With one week’s notice until the start of term. To take this up, he reduced his hours to sixteen per week. This is more than the recommended maximum of ten hours per week for full-time university students. He applied for a student loan to replace his income somewhat, but this being at the start of the year, he did not recieve it immediately. In fact, he did not receive it until May the following year thanks to a major mistake in processing the application.

This left us with outgoings of £625 per month rent, £200 per month transport costs for my boyfriend to be able to attend university, plus food costs of around £175 per month and bills. And an income of £950 per month after tax. We had no money left at the end of the month at all, and bearing in mind that neither of us smokes, we didn’t buy any alcohol, and barely ate any meat during this time, I was left worrying about the extra 30p on the cost of a slightly-nicer loaf of bread.

I investigated Housing Benefit, as I was pretty sure that we were within the weekly limit and allowance for the local area, and was awarded nearly £100 per week in Housing Benefit for two people in a one bedroom flat. I was working full-time hours, and my husband was studying full-time and still working part-time. And the government was in effect forced to pay back our tax every month. I worked out the maths, and the amount we were receiving was almost exactly equal to our tax bill.

Without these payments I would have had to quit my job, move half-way across the country and back in with my parents. My boyfriend would have had to turn down the opportunity of studying for an LLB, and would in effect have been homeless as he could not, due to family circumstances, return to live with his. We would have both become more of a burden on society as we would have been forced to sign on for Jobseekers’ Allowance and potentially have not found any work.

Three years later, this situation has reared its ugly head again. I returned to full-time study, and we moved into London to be nearer to my boyfriend’s (now husband’s) university. I finished my final exams three weeks ago, and the cost of us renting a room 4m x 3.5m in a shared flat with four other people and no other private space is £525 per month not including electricity, gas or food bills. Whilst he still receives a student loan, I have to find work. And fast. We have reached the point where we have two months of rent in the bank, then we will be forced to leave if I can’t find a job . . . either that, or I will have to re-apply for Housing Benefit.

It takes a huge loss of pride to admit defeat and to go through the humiliating process of having your bank details and your spending habits examined and your landlord contacted in order to receive a little money per week in order to be able to continue living. Whilst there may be people who routinely apply, and who make a mockery of the benefits system, many people will wait until almost the last second before they finally give in, swallow their pride, and humiliate themselves in this way. They wait until they can no longer afford to eat. They run up huge debts in order to pay the rent rather than rely on the taxes that they pay in.

There may be a need to look at the benefits bill, and the Government must reduce spending. However, when the amount paid by a full-time earner in tax is immediately returned to them to subsidise their housing there is a larger problem than just the number of claimants or their ages. When £500 per month pays for only one room in a shared flat, is there any wonder that people need help? The cost of housing has skyrocketed over recent decades, and not simply due to lack of availability – rent for a single room in a flatshare in London went up over 16% in some cases this year due to the Olympics – and the cost of living has increased hugely whilst wages have remained static.

I am optimistic that I will find work, and I am very actively looking for a position. Even when I have a wage, as a married woman in my mid-twenties in full-time employment it would be nice to be able to afford some space of my own. However, I will not re-apply for benefits even if that means remaining in a shared flat with no personal space and putting up with other peoples’ disgusting habits. I have too much personal pride and, like many who have to resort to Housing Benefit to pay their way, I would like to think that with full-time work and a husband I can finally begin to act like an adult and pay my own way without relying on either my parents or the Government.

Aside: There are already limits for the under twenty-fives. You cannot receive Tax Credits under this age. And anyone under the age of thirty is expected to live in a flat-share unless they are married or have children. The limits for Housing Benefit in the UK reflect this, and a single person under thirty will be paid no more than the local cost of renting a single room with shared facilities, whilst a single person between twenty-five and thirty will be entitled to Housing Benefit and Tax Credits, the same person under the age of twenty-five will only receive Housing Benefit, even if their living and work situation is identical.

About EleanorMawer

Reading "The Granta Book of Reportage" aged eleven influenced my life view. My curiosity and wanderlust leads me to search out news and events around the world, and I hope to bring these to the attention of others.
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