Social Justice

'I feel stuck': How the cost of living crisis is impacting universal credit claimants

The rising cost of living and energy prices means South Wales resident Kay Harris feels trapped in an endless cycle of having to choose to eat or stay warm

The cost of living crisis is causing people to choose between eating and heating. Image: Pexels

It has been seven months since the government cut universal credit by £20 per week for over 5.5 million people. Its impact continues to devastate.

In October 2021, the government removed its extra funding of £20 per week for people receiving universal credit – a policy introduced to provide claimants with more financial support during the Covid-19 pandemic. With the cost of living rising, the loss of almost £1,040 a year has forced some claimants to choose between heating or food.

It’s a dilemma South Wales resident Kay Harris faces daily. Previously a full-time carer to her mother and husband, Harris, who is from Bettws, near Bridgend has been on universal credit since her husband died in 2020.

“I’m struggling,” she told The Big Issue. Increasing rents, electricity and food bills means her income is “just not enough to live on.”

The 55-year-old explained that her universal credit hasn’t increased despite the government’s confirmed 3.1 per cent rise in state pension and benefits rates from April.

Harris suffers from asthma, arthritis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an illness that affects the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. Despite this, she’d love to go back to work but she has experienced ageism during the process of finding a job.

“Who’s going to employ a 55-year-old woman with ill health? [Young people] come out of school or college and get a job, there’s nothing out there for people my age.”

For Harris, 2020 was the worst year she could have had. Her mother died in April and her husband died in July. However, with the cost of living rising, this year has also been incredibly tough.

“It’s not good for my depression,” she said. Harris, who has two adult sons, has attended bereavement counselling and is slowly receiving help but the appointment waiting list has been long.

She explained that since the £20 universal credit cut in October, her monthly income has decreased by £87.

“The government expect me to live on £587 a month,” Harris said. She also has to pay her monthly £82 bedroom tax because of her spare room, and in April her heating increased from £120 a month to £170.

She said: “I can’t afford to put my heating on because I know I can’t afford to pay the bill at the end of the month. The winter is the worst, everyone needs heat through the winter.”

Harris budgets £120-150 a month on food for herself and her son. “With the prices going up, I’m not going to be able to afford it, I’ve got to scrape by now. I used to pay £1.45 for a tin of corned beef, and it’s gone up to £2.25!”

Harris has had to rely on food banks as “the only way to survive,” although she told The Big Issue she’d rather the food go to young families who desperately need it.

“I shouldn’t have to rely on other people. I feel stuck,” she said. “There are some weeks that I go shopping and I don’t get half [of] what I usually need, and it never lasts the whole month and [other times] I can’t afford to go shopping at all because I can’t pay my bills.”

In October, the Welsh government condemned the UK government’s plan to cut the uplift originally introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020.

As a member of Unite the Union Community, a trade union that strives for equality, Harris protested about the removal of the uplift in September 2021, outside of the Welsh Parliament.

“I don’t think the Welsh Government did enough, but they had their hands tied,” she said.

It’s clear, seven months on, the removal of the uplift is still impacting people’s lives, just like Harris.

“I’m struggling, I feel stuck,” she said. “There’s a lot more people like me who can’t afford basic necessities.”

The Big Issue is committed to helping readers make it through the cost of living crisis. Here’s where to turn for some real solutions:

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