Saturday, 24 October 2020

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice - making ends meet in modern Britain

This week has definitely been a low in British politics. In response to some spurious anti-welfare claim or other, I saw a tweet by Jack Monroe linking to this amazing blog post: You Don't Batch Cook When You're Suicidal

It made me think about the worst times in my own life, financially. Unsurprisingly they corresponded with some of the worst in terms of depression too. I'm not going to claim that my story can rival Jack's. I was in a much better position, and I had a lot more support. It was still tough.

Really bloody tough.

And if I was in that much difficulty while in work and with loving family able to help out, just imagine how much worse it is for people who do not have those safety nets.

Anyway, this keeps rolling around in my head so here it is...

December 2014. Anthony and I had recently moved in together and were looking forward to the arrival of our first child. He was working in British Gas' Cardiff call center on c. £16,000 pa, I was a backbench councillor for Torfaen County Council on c. £13,000. I had just gone on statutory maternity leave - £87.55 a week in 2014/15 - and we knew things would be a bit tight but, so long as we budgeted, we'd be fine. 

February 2015. Marianna was born by emergency cesarean 12 days overdue on January 1st; I nearly bled to death. (Obligatory shout out to the amazing surgeons at the Royal Gwent! We would not be here without you. ♥) She then spent 19 days on NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) before being allowed home. Halfway through Anthony lost his job. Suddenly that £87.55 was going to have to pay all our bills and feed three of us until the welfare state could kick in and help.

Except calculations used my regular wage, not maternity pay, and as Anthony had been self-employed before the stint at British Gas he didn't have enough NI contributions for full JSA. That month I sold my beloved collection of hundreds of books and CDs for 12p a pop to Ziffit so I could pay the gas bill on time. I obviously had to get back to work, and quickly, which I did at the end of February.

With me back on full pay, plus child benefit and income based JSA, we were now getting about £1,400 a month. It was still a struggle. I cancelled all my charity and magazine subscriptions. Anthony sold his own books and comics. We set a budget of £25 a week for food and I submitted cringeworthy tips to all the women's weeklies for the £20 on offer. The washing machine broke down, the oven packed in, and gravity dealt my laptop a death blow. Every month was a grind of not quite making ends meet.

Christmas 2015; we are so unbelievably lucky to have friends and family who could help. I just bought Marianna a single doll that year and told myself she wouldn't remember anyway.

Through it all the bank continued to charge me for being in my overdraft and missing payments, sometimes upwards of £70 a month, and we started to get behind with the gas and the water companies because the other utilities would cut us off quicker. When I was rang up the night before the council AGM 2016 and asked if I would be Deputy Mayor for the upcoming civic year I was torn - my head was a mess and I really didn't want the stress, but it came with an extra couple of grand.

There was only ever going to be one answer.

So on the one hand I got to chair full council and hobnob at civic functions while the Mayor was off for surgery on her knee. On the other I was too afraid to answer my front door because we had bailiffs charging us extra for every time they caught us at home. I was a fool with a conscience and turned down the 0.93% pay rise recommended by the IRP (Independent Remuneration Panel), and flogged all the nice vintage pre-pregnancy clothes I had hoped to get back into for pittance on ebay. 

At the 2017/18 AGM I was voted in as Mayor proper. It felt like if not all then at least most of our problems were over. The Mayor got an extra allowance of almost £6,000 and an honest to God chauffeur to civic functions! I was saving nearly £7 bus fare on most of my journeys to the civic centre. We didn't have to buy more than the bare essentials in food because everywhere we went had tea and biscuits and little cakes that while nutritionally dubious were always very tasty.

Mayor Making ceremony 2017 - those gold chains are worth over £200k...

On the downside we were (quite rightly) expected to spend a fortune in raffle tickets and I had to scrounge up some half decent stuff to wear for all the photographs. I remember going to one concert that we had been given free tickets to, to represent the borough, then at the door the lady in charge of taking the money said we could surely afford to pay our way, couldn't we? I handed over our last £20 and tried not to cry during the performance for worrying about how I was going to get the bus to other work commitments later in the week.

The thing is I could have asked for help. My colleagues would have given me a lift. My mum would have given us a few quid. I just didn't want to admit I was a failure. I was too proud. So proud I stopped seeing friends rather than explain I didn't have any money to go out with them. So proud I lied to people rather than confess that things were dire. If you read my blog posts from the time you'd never know. If you met me at the time you probably wouldn't either.

Instead I sold more stuff and signed up for any and every free trial going. I scanned receipts, took surveys, and reviewed any old tat right here in the hope I might be able to sell it on afterwards. I couldn't sleep at night for worrying about money, and let my compulsive skin picking get out of control again until I had to go back to wearing plasters to hide the bleeding.

There was no time left over for getting my head together. Anthony was still out of work, in spite of his best efforts, and for the 2018/19 year I managed to get myself elected into a committee chairship for the c. £8,000 extra that came with it. It should have been more than enough to set us right. And eventually it did. But first I needed to pay off those utility arrears. Scrape my way out of constant bank charges. Buy some shoes that weren't falling apart. 

More than anything I felt like it was all my fault. If I had budgeted more carefully. If I was in a better paid job. If I wasn't such a useless liability. I had a degree from Cambridge and I was still panicking about how I was going to pay my Labour group subscriptions before I'd have to admit to people I couldn't. I tried to overdose on sertraline, I only succeeded in making myself violently sick. I went and stood on the rail bridge and wondered if I'd be aware enough in the last seconds to regret it.

I was lucky to have family who forced me to visit my GP. I got my prescription altered and another referral back to counselling. I managed to borrow £2,000 so I could get out of my overdraft before the Natwest began charging 39.49% interest on it. Some months it can still feel like I'm robbing Peter to pay Paul if there are unexpected outgoings, and I still get a sick feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach every time there's a knock at the front door. 

But I'm lucky. I have a job that puts us above the welfare threshold. I have family who can help me out if things get tight and there's still a week to go 'til payday. I know my daughter's going to have enough to eat this winter. 

Some parents don't have any of those luxuries and they need better answers than 'buy a bag of porridge oats' or 'stop supporting crack dens with food vouchers'. The UK is broken. I only hope it isn't too late to fix it.

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