Benefits challenge: It's mission impossible...fancy a try minister?


Rhian Waller

Day seven and I’m almost done. Last night I succumbed to the lure of throat pastilles, not wanting to wake my family by hacking and coughing.

Halls lozenges were 50p, leaving me with 56p – which would pay for a pint of milk.

That’s my net value, plus a bag of frozen peas, some pasta and a portion of cabbage soup.

I abhor waste, but tonight I will take grim satisfaction in dumping the remaining cabbage soup in the compost and waving goodbye to Bob and Kath, my made-up housemates.

They’d served their purpose.

They helped me prove it is possible to live off £53 a week and even enjoy some perks – if you are able to invent housemates who don’t eat, drink or use household facilities and if you are supremely lucky enough to win a Grand National sweepstake.

And if you give up internet, newspapers and TV, in the process damaging your chances of spotting a job, if you have a network of supportive friends and family who keep lifting your spirits, and if circumstances mean you can take advantage of free meals.

And if you are living in a decent house which doesn’t demand more and more power to heat, if you have full council tax discount, and you hit the supermarket just as the out-of-date stickers have been placed on the food.

And if you have a colleague who can helpfully “pay” for your services with food and have somewhere warm to go in the long hours between waking and sleeping - ie a workplace.

And if you don’t have your period, get ill or have an accident, and if you know that, after a week, you can stop making mental lists, worrying and eating bland or unhealthy food, and return to your former life as though nothing had happened – a set of circumstances so absurd as to be paradoxical.

So in other words, actually, it’s not possible.

It won’t kill you, but an extended period of living like this will probably leave you in debt, ill, or in a poor state to look for work.

I deliberately went out on Thursday and Saturday and took a punt on the Grand National to test another pervasive idea - that people on benefits are able to smoke, gamble, drink and party,  all courtesy of the state.

Out of my original funds, excluding the Grand National winnings, I spent £6.20 on entertainment.

But I was able to do that because of crucial differences between me and a long-term benefits claimant, particularly one who has been on a low income prior to jobseeking - my lifestyle.

I was dined on Friday by a media contact and dined on Saturday by friends, which saved me buying at least three more meals of a quality that far surpassed my cabbage soup.

Then there were the little extras I made use of, things you can’t buy individually like a splash of vegetable oil, pepper, an egg, a chunk of butter, a stock cube.

I’ve been able to make use of my family car, saving on bus tickets, and I didn’t count the 70p worth of diesel I wasted when I got lost on a job and drove in increasingly stressed circles.

A typical jobseeker might not have that opportunity – and if they did, it wouldn’t crop up on a regular basis.

Three main meals and 25 miles of public transport costs would have wiped out that £6.20 advantage.

And while welfare certainly shouldn’t support luxuries, having a social life is not a treat.

We are social animals.

Having people around us is vital to our mental and emotional health.

There are many activities that don’t involve money, like volunteering and going for walks.

But I can see how easy it would be to withdraw when funds are tight and there’s a limit to how many cups of tea you can drink at other people’s houses.

I also had the cushion of knowing that if my car was pranged, or a pet was ill, or I needed a new pair of shoes, then I could cover that with my savings. That’s a luxury a lot of people don’t have.

One very ill friend struggled along for weeks when her sick pay petered out, her savings were used up and a clerical error delayed her benefit payments.

She admitted the only reason she wasn’t homeless was because her landlord was very understanding.

In contrast, I was a welfare tourist. I ate the same lunch of a banana, orange, out-of-date crisps and peanut butter sandwiches every day for a week, but I haven’t had to do it for a month.

For me, and for the people around me, this challenge has been a talking point.

People without money gave me tips and ideas. People with money were generous, interested and sympathetic.

They emotionally blackmailed me into drinking tea and eating home-made cakes and cookies - it would have been rude to refuse.

They put up with my inability to reciprocate their favours.

When was the last time you commiserated with a perennial jobseeker rather than wondering when they will, as a far older political gaffe advised, get on their bike and look for work?

I got on my bike to clean windows, which was all very well, but I owned that bike in the first place.

On £53 a week neither I nor any politician could save up and buy one.

I would like to say the experience has made me a better person.

It hasn’t. It has made me an angrier person.

I don’t doubt there are people who have learned how to play the system.

There are some “scroungers”, malingerers and fraudsters.

But on behalf of all those who aren’t in that bracket, probably more than those behind massive public-sector cuts would have us believe, I found myself ranting to anyone who would listen.

I raged about the ridiculous price of gas and the high cost of living, the hopelessness of the poverty trap, the stupidity of the fact that it’s cheaper to run a car than it is to take public transport on a day-to-day basis  - though in the long term, the cost of buying, servicing and insuring the car might prove more expensive - the impracticalities of job-hunting when simply surviving takes so much time, mental energy and calculation, the way the odds are stacked against those who start off with nothing and end up with less.

If nothing else, my challenge proved to me that living on basic benefits is not the easy option.

I couldn’t do it without cheating, Mr Duncan Smith. But I’d like to see you try.

See full story in the Leader

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