I know I’m a bit slow on the uptake, but I’ve just twigged what the mutation of Working and Child Tax Credits into Universal Benefit next year means in practice. For me and many other lowish-income family tax credit recipients, the money will morph overnight from a kind of extra child benefit, seemingly generously conceived to lighten the considerable financial burdens of parenthood, into a one-size-fits-all jobseeker’s allowance. With an application process specifically designed to shame recipients into apologising for needing it, and for having children who need it, and promising to spend every free moment struggling to escape it, at whatever personal cost.
Somehow I get the feeling I’ve been here before; that too is intentional, I gather. I used to sign on back in the 1980s and that’s just what it felt like. J K Rowling has documented her own feelings of stigmatization as a single-mother claimant in those days forcefully enough. I had no child then, and for some of the time avoided the added humiliation of applying for housing benefit by squatting neglected property, but I still claimed £25-£30 a week Supplementary Benefit, as it was known then (supplementary to what, I used to wonder?) For a number of years, in fact, until, in frustration and self-disgust, I went abroad. The “scrounger” label came to typify the angry-radical politics which characterised me and many fellow claimants in those years of acute youth unemployment, and in many of our cases, extremely low self-esteem, which disqualified us, effectively, from any jobs that might and eventually did materialise. If that’s what Thatcher’s Britain thought of us, then by God, that’s how we would behave.
Some thirty years later, it took me almost two years after the birth of my only child to apply for family tax credits. I couldn’t believe it could be so easy. Not that the process of application – and re-application – is any simpler than the old Supp Ben was, to the extent that it must be beyond many non-English-speaking parents; but what is completely absent is the stigma. No pressure to do, or be, anything, other than a lowish-income parent. This money is for your child, the nice tax people seem to be saying; he or she deserves it (whether you do is beside the point.) This is too good to be true, surely.
Well of course it is. This money, amounting in our case to about £3000 annually, is set to disappear later this year. I and the millions of other parents affected will presumably be invited to apply for Iain Duncan-Smith’s brand-new Universal Credit, but I would do so in pretty poor faith, since I cannot in all honesty – any more than I could as an angry graduate 30 years ago – claim to be a properly-focussed full-time job-hunter. Without my currently unpaid contribution both my disabled partner’s and my own fledgling small business would flounder; and that’s without mentioning the costs both financial and emotional of daily out-of-school care for my five-year-old, and to family life in general. I’d need a pretty well-paid job to be able to pay enough people to pick up the slack; and if I ever see one advertised I stand half a chance of getting, I’ll apply for it, I promise, no problem.
But that, if my memory of scrounger-monger administrations serves me well, won’t be sufficient. To salvage my “right” to my benefit and my family’s social respectability I’ll be expected to compete ridiculously with school-leavers and grandparents for every minimum wage job going within a 20-mile radius.
I won’t do it. So come next autumn, I’ll just lose that money, and my family will just have to cope. Perhaps our enterprises really will take off sufficiently to fill the gap; fingers crossed. Or perhaps we’ll be forced to sell up and move somewhere cheaper, with all the disruption and heartache that will cause. We won’t be alone in that, for sure.