More than a third of young disadvantaged people said they'd have to borrow money or take out a loan after the universal credit cut. Image: Chris JL/Flickr
A weekly £20 can be food for the week, a fuel bill or a new pair of shoes for the winter. But for Rihanna, 17, it was the difference between getting an education and having to work full-time just to make ends meet.
When the government cut universal credit by £20 per week for nearly 5.5 million claimants, it meant Rihanna could no longer afford the bus journey to and from college, where she was working towards her A-levels.
She had hopes of earning her qualifications at college and going to university – but when the early October cut left her around £86-per-month poorer, she couldn’t afford to physically get to classes. The teenager had no choice but to leave, worried about “how [she] was going to eat”, giving up her hopes of getting a university degree in the process.
“One night I had to sit down and decide between my education or somewhere to live,” Rihanna told The Big Issue. She feels her future was “taken away” from her.
“It was really scary,” she said. “Growing up, all you hear is that education is everything. All my friends are still in college and continuing with their A-levels.”
Mental health problems at home meant Rihanna became estranged from her family last March, aged 16, and was subsequently forced to move out.
After a few nights staying with her boyfriend, his landlord found out she was sleeping there, so she was kicked out of there too.
Rihanna ended up “sofa-surfing” for a time, taken in by a friend’s parents and given the couch to sleep on before social services stepped in. She signed up for universal credit to contribute to housing costs and to ensure she could still make it to college.
By this point, the government had already increased payments by £20-per-week to support people through the Covid-19 crisis. It was a temporary measure, but one which barely brought the benefit in line with real living costs after several years of freezes and inflation, experts said.
Even with the increase, Rihanna still struggled to make ends meet on universal credit. “I was running out of money about two weeks into every month,” she said. “It was quite difficult to live off that amount of money.”
She was forced to take out an advance from the government when she applied for the benefit because of the five-week wait for a first payment. The advance effectively acts like a loan, deducted from a person’s universal credit payments for up to two years. It meant Rihanna, homeless and without family support, was pushed into debt immediately.
“I had to take out another loan a couple of months ago because I ran out of money,” she added. “It was the only way I could eat.”
Removing the £20 increase on October 6 this year – despite widespread condemnation from opposition MPs, an army of campaigners and former Tory welfare ministers – amounted to the biggest overnight cut to social security since the Second World War, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It risks pushing 500,000 people into poverty, the researchers said, including 200,000.
Rihanna relies on the benefit to cover basic essentials. It kept her afloat when she was placed in emergency foster care for three weeks then into supported lodgings – her permanent home for four months now – where her rent is also covered by universal credit.
Step by Step, Rihanna’s local End Youth Homelessness charity, helped the teenager find accommodation when she was without somewhere secure to stay.
“The fact that Rihanna has felt forced to leave college is a bitter blow for her,” said Debbie Moreton, the charity’s chief executive, “potentially harming her life chances, and one echoed by many of the other young people who we support. We would urge the government to rethink this decision.”
The cut took the payments to the lowest they’d ever been in the time the 17-year-old had been claiming them, despite the financial shock of the pandemic still being felt across the country.
Being in a position where a suddenly-unaffordable bus pass can change the course of your life is “daunting”, Rihanna said.
“Luckily I’ve got really good people surrounding me and cheering me on, some who didn’t go to college themselves and still do really well” she added. “That’s the only reason it hasn’t been as scary as it could’ve been. I have to believe you don’t need education if you work hard.”
She now works full-time in a coffee shop. “£200 a month, minus my advances and the £20 a week, just isn’t enough to live off,” she said.
“I started my job in Costa when I heard about the cut, planning to do a few shifts while still going to college. But I realised it was just too difficult to balance both of them and still have enough money to live off.”
Five months ago she was forced to give up on her involvement with the army cadets, which she “loved” and had been part of since she was a child, because she couldn’t afford the bus there either.
Rihanna looked into doing an apprenticeship to make up for being forced out of her A-levels but realised that even working full time, the pay would be too low to cover her living costs. Right now, she plans to enjoy stability for a while, save some money then go travelling.
“I’ve got to pay for my food, I’ve got to pay my rent, I’ve got to pay for basic necessities,” she said. “I don’t think kids in my position are taken into consideration. We definitely weren’t part of the picture when they decided to reduce universal credit.”
Around seven in 10 disadvantaged young people said they would struggle to afford food and essentials after the cut, according to Centrepoint research. More than a third (38 per cent) expected they’d have to borrow money or take out a loan.
“Most of us would struggle if our income was permanently reduced by 25 per cent,” said Nick Connolly, director of End Youth Homelessness.
“Homeless young people have it hard enough already because they can’t rely on support from their parents, extended family, friends or carers.
“If we really want to unlock their huge potential so they can contribute to society, we need to stand by them while they’re looking for work or getting an education. We need to ensure they have the support they need to succeed and not make their lives even harder.”