How many of us really understand what it’s like to live on a low income? Some of us will as our financial situation fluctuates over our lives; but for many of us, being trapped in poverty is something we could never truly understand.
Sometimes, this lack of understanding can lead to stereotypes and judgements being made about people living in poverty and their experiences. Far too often, we’re quick to judge and make assumptions (even unconsciously) without knowing the full story.
When we collectively do this, including parts of the media and politics, it contributes to creating and perpetuating a stigma that has become associated with poverty.
My family and I challenged ourselves to live on £28.30 for three days which is the figure we calculated to be the daily amount my family would be entitled to if we were on Universal Credit.
What we experienced was eye opening and enlightening.
Going for the Messages
Buying food and drink immediately became difficult and we had to think so carefully about what we were buying in a way that we never did before.
Having a restricted income means restricted freedom: the small luxuries we always enjoyed were now gone; it was now cuts and compromises, and sometimes nothing if we couldn’t afford it. We were getting bemused looks going round the aisles with a calculator, paper and pen.
It was a learning curve to adapt. We bought a whole chicken instead of fillets, ingredients to bake and cook instead of buying ready-made food. We just had enough to spare to put petrol in the car.
We managed (barely) but it was an extra weight on top of the rush and pressure of daily living.
All the Wee Extras
The shopping and all the bills add up. But I never realised just how much you have to cash out for small day-to-day things.
My son had to contribute £1 and a non-perishable food item for his Boy’s Brigade fundraiser. That would be impossible for many living on Universal Credit. How do you look your child in the face and explain to them why you can’t provide this?
Our family is blessed with wonderful dogs and I was acutely aware of the expense that pets incur. It is worth every penny for the love and company that pets bring to our lives; but this is another enriching and fulfilling enhancement to our lives that is off limits to low-income households.
In the evening we settled down to watch TV and it struck me that it’s all paid for monthly: Sky TV and broadband, Netflix, Disney Plus – all the wee extras that bring us joy and entertainment in our free time. The modern world offers us so many convenient utilities – the dishwasher, the washing machine – all incredibly handy, and incredibly costly.
Of course, I am also conscious of the fact it’s not just the wee extras. Our house, car, heating electric, insurance – it all comes out the budget at the end of the month and I generally don’t need to worry.
Time to Breathe
I’m grateful to have taken on this challenge with my family. I had meaningful conversations with my children about budgeting, prices and thinking about what we need to buy versus what we want to buy. I am more aware now of the grip poverty can have over someone’s life and I’ll carry this awareness with me forever.
I look around at everything I take for granted and I realise that my family’s Universal Credit challenge doesn’t fully represent what living on a low income is like.
The challenge gave us a snapshot of what it’s like.
Truthfully, it is hard to imagine the difficulty and the anxiety if my home, car and bills suddenly became unaffordable, but this is the reality for so many: even before the pandemic, around a million people in Scotland were in poverty, living precarious and insecure lives.
I became aware that the life my family and I live - our ordinary life with our home comforts and all the wee extras that fill our days - is unattainable to so many people.
When more of us who are better off have this awareness, that the small things we take for granted are out of reach for so many, we will start the journey to eradicating poverty.
If we want to challenge poverty and combat stigma then we need to turn this awareness into empathy, then empathy into action.
Oct 8, 2021