Today is the second day of Andrea’s week of Living Below The Line. We’ve developed a tag team approach to getting the word out about this.
Andrea tells everyone about how unspeakable her day was and why. Then I take up the baton. I elaborate some of the facts and figures behind what’s happening, and I compare it to how it would be for me, if I was doing it.
The main reason we’re doing this is because Andrea has no dependents and I have many. By splitting this out between us we can show you the hardships and advantages for those alone, and those who have a family to look after.
I’ve listened to a lot of people speak judgmentally about people on benefit, and poor people and how they’re lazy and stupid and how they themselves would do things so much better. If you’ve ever even begun to think you might manage ‘better’, I’d like you to start thinking about what you’re about to read. These are the things that have occurred to me just in the last day as I’ve monitored Andrea’s progress and thought about it in terms of me and mine.
As evidenced by my spectacular reaction to having to come off caffeine for four days for medical purposes a few weeks ago, there is no way that I can simply give up coffee, even though it is really expensive. If I had to, I would be unfit for work/job hunting/signing on, for at least two days. That might lead to sanctions, which mean not even living below the line. That means an instant cessation of all benefit for a minimum of four weeks. So, I’d have to find a way to get myself some caffeine and starve for two or three days rather than risk being sanctioned to starve for a month. Obviously the would impact heavily on not just me, but the rest of my family. It would be easier if I were single.
Andrea only has to look after herself. This may sound better, but it does limit her buying power in terms of how far she can stretch her money, as it’s always more economical to buy in bulk. She also has to pay more attention to use by dates etc. It’s no good buying a family pack of something only to have it go mouldy before she can use it. If she doesn’t have a freezer, or decent storage, this exacerbates this problem.
I have dependents, so I would get more money, but that money has to stretch further. Just because I budget £1 per day for food per person, that money is not ring-fenced, and if there is an emergency, it may have to be used for other things whether I like it or not. This is also true for Andrea. However, when you have children, those emergencies can come thick and fast. Things that wouldn’t be an emergency for regular families could easily push a family living below the line into crisis.
I used the example of the fact that my children are all in school. This sounds great. Free childcare during the day, free school meals. Except that it is free childcare between very specific hours, very specific hours that don’t tally with the hours a person is supposed to be working. Free childcare that doesn’t take into account school holidays or what happens when your child is sick. So you have to think about child care, and unless you have a good community and family network, childcare costs, and if you can’t afford it, you can’t work. Free school meals are not universal, so you may not be eligible.
Then you have uniform, which children are always growing out of, or losing and which must be replaced. Some schools will only allow you to buy this from approved outlets. You have no choice but to comply, or your child gets excluded. There’s wear and tear on shoes and trainers and plimsolls. At one of my children’s schools they had outdoor shoes, trainers for indoor PE, indoor shoes, and were also obliged to have rugby boots/football boots. In early years some schools require children to have wellingtons for messy, outdoor play and indoor slippers as well as regular shoes.
That’s the basics. Then there are the extras. The school trips (some of which will be subsidised for low income families, but not all trips and not every family). The endless invitations to children’s parties (Oscar is going to two this weekend alone) and you have to factor in a gift, a card, wrapping paper and transport. The playdates (Oscar will have had two of these by the end of the week) and how you feed those extra mouths. The charity days, non-uniform days, letters asking you to send your child in fancy dress, with general ‘stuff’. The fact that in secondary school you are paying for stationery, calculators etc.
You might say that the fact that you can’t afford it simply means that they can’t have it. That’s fair isn’t it? I mean, it’s true, right? Except that how do you explain to your child, day in, day out, when they see everyone around them doing and having these things, that they can’t? Of course you can do it, but it’s heart breaking and exhausting, and relentless, because it’s all the bloody time. Often, adults will go without to give the children what they need, but this can lead to its own complications.
One of the things that’s great about being part of the school community is that it can help you with childcare. You build up a network of friends who will pick your child up for you in an emergency, or take them home for an hour or two after school for a bit, but this only works if you reciprocate. If you take all the time, eventually people stop helping you, so you have to return the favour, only if you can barely feed yourself, stretching it out to another child, or two, could mean you going hungry.
Then there’s the every day small crises that just happen to everyone, whether you’re single or in a family. Today I wrote about three things that happened this week already. One of the tiles in our shower floor is cracked. Tallulah chewed a biro in school yesterday and sheered off a lump of her orthodontic brace, and this morning the sole fell off the heel of my boot.
All minor irritations, all easily fixed, but when you’re living below the line, these things can push you from just about coping into crisis.
Take the shower tile. We fixed it with silicone sealant. I found prices ranging from £1.90 to £8. There is no extra to fall back on when you’re living below the line. There isn’t a pot marked: ‘Bugger it, the shower has gone wrong.’ The money has to come from what you have to hand, and you just may not have it. It’s a small crack. You can still use the shower, but every day the water seeps in, weakening the floor/ceiling underneath, spreading damp and mould spores. A small problem becomes a big problem.
My shoe sole was fixed with No Nails. It’s about a quid a tube if you get the non-branded stuff. Again, maybe I don’t have a quid, because that’s three meals worth of money for me. I don’t fix it. It may be the only pair of shoes I have. Eventually the rain gets in, or I get long term health problems from poorly fitting shoes. I can’t think about taking it to a cobbler to fix, it would be about £8. I could buy a cheap pair of shoes from Asda for maybe a fiver, except that’s a week’s food money gone. I might need good shoes to go to a job interview. I can’t afford them. Employers judge appearances. It could mean the difference between getting a job and remaining unemployed. What can I do about it?
And then there’s Tallulah’s brace. NHS dentistry is a rare beast these days. Yes, dental work for under eighteens is free, but you have to find an NHS dentist who will take you. What if it’s so far from your house you can’t afford to get there? Orthodontics is one of the areas that the NHS are pinching in terms of funding. Your teeth have to be really bad to get that work these days. Tallulah’s were bad enough, which means her treatment is free, but it’s a 25 minute drive from my house to the surgery. Some surgeries don’t charge for scheduled treatment, but they do charge for emergency appointments and work. We didn’t get charged today, but I didn’t know whether I would be or not.
Along with malnutrition, dental complications are one of the fastest rising causes of admission to NHS hospitals in the UK currently. The number of children under the age of ten needing hospital treatment for dental issues has risen by a quarter in the last few years. This article in The Independent, talks about an over dependence on sugar in the diet as the culprit, but I think it’s more complex than that. Don’t you?