The government’s new system of Universal Credit, an attempt to “roll together” existing social benefit payments, has consistently made headlines for its disorganised and chaotic implementation that has left many in deep financial struggle. Now the system is being introduced in the Cambridgeshire area, it is especially important for us to understand this policy of reckless austerity for what it is: a symptom of the crisis of British capitalism, and the governments effectual inability to provide basic support to the very people they claim to represent.
A Dangerously Failing System- Nick’s Story
Nick Dolton, an 18 year old from Gloucestershire has been kind enough to talk to The Red Flag (Cambridge Marxist society) about his experience with this disastrous programme and how it affects his life.
“I became homeless around the age of 15. I was in an abusive household in which I felt trapped. Initially my friends allowed me to sofa surf at their house, which provided me with an escape. However this escape did not bring stability. Social services got involved but very little support was provided by them.” Nick’s story is all too familiar: government agencies in a financial and administrative crisis, passing off young and vulnerable people with little to no concrete plan or network of support.
Universal Credit forced Nick to rely on “the kindness of others” for basic services such as food and shelter: surely in one of the richest countries in the world, this is something a 15 year old should be entitled to. Nick has been struggling with homelessness on and off for around 3 years now, and for most of this time he had no income at all, and was even forced to turn to begging on the street. “It was only in the past year I began to receive universal credit and although it has given me some stability financially it has been an incredibly stress inducing system to be involved in.” Nick recalls how the money he receives is often late and varies each month, whilst most of his finances go to pay for his rent at the homeless shelter. The shelter is one of the few left in Gloucestershire: it took 3 whole years of homelessness for him to be offered a place to stay. While there, he has been forced to live in fear alongside violent adults and drug dealers, all of whom are far older than him. Nick has often been forced to call the police when fights in the shelter have broken out and has even had to barricade himself in his bedroom for his own safety; but due to the utter ineptitude of the current benefits system imposed by universal credit he can’t afford to live anywhere else.
The Consequences of Tory Failure
Despite his dire financial situation, Nick says that Universal Credit failed him from the outset. “I applied to universal credit when I was 17 and was told I had to go to the job centre for an interview; I felt overwhelmed. It was an uncomfortable situation to be in as a vulnerable teenager on my own. I was being asked a multitude of questions that I didn’t understand, and I was surrounded by people crying and shouting desperately. The overall environment of the place felt cold and miserable. No one wanted to be there including the staff, who were very cold and judgemental.”
Clearly, this broken system is not providing working people with the stability they need to support themselves and their families. Nick emphasises that even for his “basic human needs to be met”, the tiring administrative process is so dense and complex that getting access to the support he’s entitled to is near impossible.
Universal Credit- The Real Benefits Scandal
Like the experiences of so many others wrestling with this damaging policy, Nick has been consistently failed by several government agencies in turn. When he’d get in contact with social services, he’d be informed that his “case had been closed”, despite him living on and off the streets for 3 years, with no long-term solution being offered. Amazingly, Nick has been able to stay in full time education and keep up his passions for volunteering and art, despite the financial barriers he was forced to endure. Buying school supplies from charity shops, being forced to walk 7 miles to college each day because social services refused to pay for a £1.20 bus ticket; these are the desperate real-world consequences of Tory austerity, and they are far too common.
As Nick rightly points out, benefits are put in place to support some of the most vulnerable people within our society, and yet “everyday there are multiple headlines about people becoming homeless or not being able to feed their children because of this system.”
“Its far too often I hear people make assumptions about people on benefits and never consider the reality behind it. Those of us who rely on universal credit as a system are not scrounging from the government, we want to survive and have our basic living requirements met”
Socialism or Barbarism
Ultimately, Nick says, “Universal Credit is a flawed system. It was rushed into play and its’ problems were overlooked.” Stories like Nick’s are becoming so common an experience that they do not even make headlines. 14 million people live in poverty in the UK, i.e. over one in five of the population, and at least half those in poverty live in families where at least one person is in work. In the 4th richest country in the world, the crisis of universal credit has brought to light these far deeper economic issues. Why can Theresa May afford £455 million a year to prop up her tarnished leadership through the reactionary DUP, and yet the new benefits system cannot even afford food or shelter for homeless teenagers? Phillip Hammond recently announced “the end of the austerity”, but with Brexit looming and the gap between Britain’s rich and poor constantly widening, the British public simply can’t accept this dangerously inaccurate rhetoric.
Nick says that the implementation of Universal Credit has failed to deliver “the necessary consideration that needs to be applied when trying to work with and support people on benefits.” It is abundantly clear that this necessary consideration was not the Conservatives priority; rather, their policies reflect a desperate rinsing of the under-funded public services, intentionally erecting barriers to accessing the support that all people are entitled to. Nick wants to call on those who have heard his story to educate themselves on the reality of poverty in Britain, with the hope that “more people will fight for the change that is so desperately needed.” As socialists, as members of society and as moral human beings, we need to fight the Tory government and its dehumanising programmes. The working class must mobilize for a general election and resist the Tory cuts imposed on local councils, even if that means Labour councils passing illegal budgets. The time for all of us to act is now.
Alexander Barry, Cambridge Marxist Society