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Social Justice

Dad on universal credit has gone days without eating so he can feed his children through cost of living crisis

Anthony Lyman is one of millions of people across the UK struggling to afford the essentials as the cost of living soars.

A single dad on universal credit says he has gone days without a meal amid the cost of living crisis so he can afford food for his children. Anthony Lyman, a 36-year-old from Northampton, faces “sleepless nights” worrying about how he is going to keep his two children warm in the winter. He is finding himself between £200 and £300 behind on his bills each month and, unable to work because of poor health, he has no way of paying that money back.

Lyman is far from alone. Around seven million families in the UK have missed out on food or essentials like showers and toiletries this year because they couldn’t afford them, research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) revealed last week. That’s equivalent to every family in the north of England.

“For people like me in this situation,” Lyman says, “you are risking your personal health. You’re risking even having a roof over your head because something has to give, whether that be council tax or electricity or food or rent. We’re left in a horrible situation where we can’t afford to pay. We’re just falling back further down rather than making progress.”

Lyman has been struggling financially since 2002, but he reached crisis point and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2019. He previously worked full time as a teaching support assistant in a special education needs school but poor mental health meant he was forced to give up his job and rely on universal credit.

“The reality check came when I was going through the court process for access to both my children,” he explains. “We couldn’t afford solicitors or anything like that. I reached a mental health crisis during that process to the point where I actually checked myself into the hospital for a bit of protection that night. That’s the point where I realised I had to reach out to my mum and my family.”

With support from his family and charities, Lyman was making progress towards recovery. But now, the cost of living crisis is hitting his family hard and he cannot afford the essentials. Until he is told by a doctor he is well enough to go to work, he has to rely on benefits as his only source of income.

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Universal credit was increased by £20 a week from March 2020 due to the financial hardships caused by the pandemic but that was withdrawn by the government in October last year. 

“We had the universal credit uplift removal,” Lyman says. “Then we had the electricity bills go up and our food go up. Our benefits haven’t lined up with the rate of inflation, so that’s left us in a horrible situation. I find myself, monthly, on a deficit of between £200 and £300. That’s because all the prices have shot up. 

“The support isn’t in place as much as it should be for people in our situation, so there’s a lot of juggling that happens. I have the kids on a 50/50 basis. When I don’t have the kids, sometimes I’m going one or two days without actually having a meal so that I’ve got enough to eat for when they’re here.”

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Over eight million families on benefits such as universal credit will receive an initial cost of living payment of £326 on July 14, the government has confirmed. A second instalment of £324 will be sent to qualifying low-income households in the autumn. 

“The government has announced this payment scheme which is all good and well,” Lyman says. “But we’ve got to the point where it’s taken so long for them to actually move on their decision, that we’re already in a situation of trying to refight debt. This time, there’s no way I can access any credit at all. It’s horrible. It’s stressful. It definitely makes me poorly sometimes.”

He adds: “You feel worse. The sleepless nights happen more. The worry is there more. The anxiety around how you move forward, the stress of the potential of having to turn around and give up a court order of access to your kids just because you can’t afford to have them.

“I worry about being able to keep them warm during the winter, which is just around the corner now really. Time has moved very quickly over these past few years.We’re once again approaching what potentially could be a very cold winter. It all becomes a reality. And the support is limited out there.”

Families are falling into more debt because of the crisis. On average, low-income households are £1,600 out of pocket. They have taken on a total of £12.5billion in debt in 2022 alone, according to research from the JRF

Lyman was given free debt help from the charity Christians Against Poverty in 2019, and he is keen to stress that there is help out there for people who need it. But he has now found himself in a situation where he might have to return to the charity again for support, instead of being able to help other people as he had hoped. 

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Campaigners and charities are calling on the government to act now to tackle the cost of living crisis. The JRF, for example, is calling for an overhaul of the benefits system and to allow low-income families to pay their debt back at affordable rates.

Katie Schmuecker, of the JRF, says: “Rather than lurching from emergency to emergency, the government must get ahead of this problem. A simple thing they can do immediately to make a difference is to stop deducting debt repayments from benefits at unaffordable rates.  

“The way the government collects debts is making an already bad situation far worse, by making an already low basic rate of social security even lower still. It leaves too little to cover the essentials at the best of times, let alone during the biggest cost of living crisis in a generation – a crisis which shows no signs of abating.” 

Lyman agrees that more needs to be done, adding: “We need to see an actual realistic solution rather than dangling the carrot in front of us. We need to be able to afford our groceries and afford our extortionate electricity bills which are increasing again. 

“Where is the protection? It doesn’t feel like there is any. It leaves you helpless when we should be enjoying the best years of our children’s lives before they rush off and be adults. We’re left with the stress of trying to make sure everything’s okay so when the reality is things are not okay. Things are a mess.”

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