Claire was referred to a charity food bank by her housing advice officer, who realised she wasn’t coping. She was falling behind on her rent and struggling to afford meals for her family. “The food bank was my only other option to get food for my kids and myself,” she says.
Jobcentre staff had previously offered Claire a food bank voucher, but that meant catching a bus from her village to their office; without enough for a loaf of bread or a pint of milk, a bus ticket was out of the question.
Claire is a single mother of four children who split from her partner last year after suffering domestic violence. A subsequent breakdown meant she had to leave her job and claim Employment Support Allowance (ESA) while she tried to get better. In March she was moved over to universal credit, the new monthly benefit rolling six existing payments such as ESA, housing benefit and child-tax credits into one.
It’s been “chaos” ever since, she says. A long wait at the start left her with nothing. She got into debt. Instead of being able to take care of herself and her fragile mental health, she had to increase her medication to deal with the stress.
In July the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Universal Credit released a report which found that payment delays have “been a key driver in the increased use of food banks,” with people “having to survive on little to no income for a long period of time”.
It also said The Trussell Trust, the largest UK food bank organisation, reports “a demonstrable increase” in demand whenever universal credit goes live in an area.
“On average, 12 months after universal credit rollout, their food banks see a 52% average increase in demand, compared to 13% in areas that have had universal credit for three months or less.”
Claire now relies heavily on the Trussell Trust. After rent and bills she says there is nothing left. “That’s what takes priority. I just don’t want to be kicked out of my house, I just don’t want to end up with me and my children homeless.”
Claire’s situation is familiar to Alison Peyton who manages a mobile food bank in Reading. “People are having to choose between rent and food,” she says. “They pay their rent, their bills, they put a bit on the gas and electric and then there’s nothing left.”
Having worked there for a decade she’s noticed a big increase in demand since people started moving on to universal credit last year.
“People that I’ve had contact with, in winter, when more goes on gas and electric, they run short of food that month but can manage most of the time,” she says. But now, “some of those people, who are very resourceful, are saying ‘I just can’t manage’. One particular lady I’m thinking about is getting food from dumpsters behind supermarkets. She still can’t manage.”
Many of their referrals come directly from jobcentre staff who ring them up when claimants have nothing to eat. “I’ve just come off the phone with them now,” she says.
Universal credit not only affects people out of work, but also those on low pay. By the time roll-out is complete over seven million UK households will be claiming it – that means more than a third of working age adults and nearly half of all children will be affected.
Kirsty (not her real name) is a retail assistant living near Manchester with her baby son and five-year-old daughter. Universal credit tops up her £600 monthly wages but she struggles on the benefit and says life is much harder compared to the old system. One month she was left with under £200 to live on after double the usual amount was deducted from her benefit.
“Because I had maternity allowance and holiday pay from work they took £900 off me,” she says. She rang the helpline in a panic, “I was sobbing on the phone for half an hour saying ‘what am I supposed to do?’ They said they couldn’t do anything, if we needed food, go to a food bank.”
The food bank network seems to have expanded into the space left behind by a shrinking welfare state. Nearly a decade of austerity means those with the least have seen their incomes reduce even further.
Working-age benefits are currently frozen for four years. This came straight after a three-year freeze on tax credits and child benefit from 2011, and a 1% cap on all working age benefits for three years in 2014. At the same time “the cost of living for people on low incomes has risen by £900 a year,” says the APPG report, meaning “universal credit and other working age benefits will have a lot of catching up to do to reach a basic minimum level”.
What would happen if food banks didn’t exist? Claire says she has no idea how she would survive but while she’s relieved it’s there, she feels “ashamed” relying on it. “But you just go and just feel really embarrassed about using it,” she says. “I know it’s for people like us that are struggling but sometimes you just feel awful.”
Anouska currently claims universal credit due to ill-health and feels the same way. “I went to the food bank last week,” she says. “It was embarrassing but also a relief.”
She lives in Devon with her adult son and has taken out DWP advances and loans to try and get by. While this was a temporary help she says she now has to pay back £166 out of her monthly £337 payment.
Without the food bank we would have “gone without or had to take more money off the rent money to buy some [food] which would have meant my rent arrears would grow faster,” she says. Her tenancy is now at risk.
When asked for comment, a DWP spokesperson said: “The reasons for using food banks are complex and it would be wrong to link it to any single cause.
“With Universal credit no one has to wait to be paid. Advances are available on day one and 96% of payments are made in full and on time.”
While Anouska and Claire feel ashamed not to be able to afford food, Alison at Reading food bank feels angry. “Universal credit is not fit for purpose,” she says.
When ill health prevented her from working ESA gave her the chance to get back on her feet. “I did it for 18 months, I was a single mum on benefits with three sons,” she says.
But while the benefits system used to care for people “now we have a punitive welfare state that punishes people for things. It makes me angry.”