Yesterday, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, released his final report on his visit to the UK last year.
It reveals eye-watering levels of poverty in the UK and the deliberate decisions our politicians have been taking that trap people in the grip of poverty.
I would like to say that his report has been a shock, but as someone who has years of experience raising a family on a low income, his findings merely reflect the reality of the life I see day in day out.
When Philip Alston came to meet residents of Cranhill and Ruchazie we told him about life on the frontline of austerity. We talked about the challenges of struggling to put food on the table, heat our homes and pay the rent. We talked about the distress and social isolation that comes from having less than spare change.
As the UN Rapporteur highlights in the report, Universal Credit is driving destitution. The biggest problem is the outrageous waiting time. People receiving Universal Credit have to wait five to eight weeks to receive their first payments. I’ve seen people get into two months’ rent arrears while they await their payment. During that time they have been threatened with legal action by their housing provider.
From my own personal experience, I know the impact it has on your mental health and family life when you live in fear of being evicted but you are powerless to stop it. I used to be unable to work because of a health condition. For years, I got moved from one type of benefit to another and there was never a cross-over, I always had to reapply. I got further and further into rent arrears and got taken to court six times. I narrowly escaped eviction and have since paid off the debt but it was extremely difficult and has taken many years.
Being in poverty and relying on Universal Credit is like being stuck in the middle of a spider’s web with no escape route. You can climb further up the web to try and get out but something keeps dragging you back. Low pay, insecure work, zero hours contracts and a punitive social security system make it very difficult to escape. That’s the trap of poverty.
As a parent, living on a low income is particularly difficult because you have to say no to a lot of things like taking them for a swim or to the pictures, and children often get bullied if they don’t have the right clothes.
A lot of people in my community say it’s like living in the film Groundhog Day where every day is the same basic struggle. In the morning you struggle to get up and do what you’ve got to do, just to wake up and repeat the same struggle. It takes a huge toll on your health and wellbeing.
In his report on poverty in the UK, the Special Rapporteur also highlights the problem of in-work poverty. I know this all too well. I have a job but I can’t get enough hours to meet my needs so I’m actually even worse off than I was before. We need a real Living Wage, and the social security system should be redesigned to ensure everybody’s needs are met, whether you are in work or not.
A big problem for people in my community is the lack of transport to enable people to access work. Even the nearest supermarket is more than three miles away. We’ve petitioned the local bus company to improve the service but to no avail. I would like to see investment in our communities, with more services and transport where people need them. I also believe that communities need greater powers to determine the services they need. The work we have done in Cranhill and with Cranhill Development Trust shows the power of communities. We set up community shops so that people don’t have to travel miles to buy groceries at an affordable price.
This report should serve as a wake-up call for all of us. If we want to live in a decent society where we care for each other, then something urgently has to change. The UK Government needs to improve the social security system to put humanity back at its heart. Benefits need to be easier to access for everyone who needs them and available as soon as they are needed. I would like to see a citizens income introduced. In the short-term, the UK Government should urgently end the waiting time for Universal Credit and overhaul the punitive sanctions regime.
Jamie Clark is a community activist from Ruchazie, Glasgow, and a volunteer for Cranhill Development Trust