I learned at a young age that money is an emotional topic. I knew that, on a practical level, it was something that enabled my survival. But I also saw how uncomfortable people got when it was brought up, how it brought up envy, and how messy relationships became when money got tangled up within them.
When I started my first job at 16, I enjoyed the sense of pride that came with making my own money, but I soon came to know a unique kind of shame and panic that washed over me following a night of overpriced drinks and taxi journeys. I know the guilt that comes when I spend money on myself, or when I hemorrhage money through no fault of my own. Like when I lose something valuable, have to buy another ticket because I missed my train, or forget to cancel a free trial for something I don’t want. Money is more than numbers and transactions. It’s a major factor in how we navigate life and understand our place within a capitalist system.
Money as an emotionally charged concept is inevitable within a neoliberal system that associates consumption with comfort and value. Yet I’m not alone in my realisation that no matter what you buy, it doesn’t fill the void. This is often used to uphold the warning that money can’t buy happiness.
Sure, being rich doesn’t insulate you from human problems, and money complicates things because, I imagine, with hedonistic spending comes boredom, disappointment and fake friends. The problem is, this rhetoric is sometimes used to suggest that poor people are happier because their life is simple. This is so very wrong. Having a lack of disposable income doesn’t simplify life. Fighting for survival is not peaceful.
“I feel this way because that’s the way the system wants me to feel. If I’m too busy blaming myself, I don’t have the energy to question why almost one million young people aged 16-24 claim Universal Credit in one of the world’s wealthiest countries.”
I’m a freelancer, which means income is never guaranteed. In the particularly dark months, each day is coloured by the fear that I can’t pay rent. I become blind to the use by dates on food and can’t shake the image of that black and white minus sign hovering before an ever-growing number in my bank account that seems to be shouting: “you’re fucked!”
I berate myself for aspiring to spend like my peers in better paid jobs, and for wanting to treat myself after a week of relentless graft. While I’ve worked, or looked for work, consistently for almost a decade, I have no savings to speak of and often just scrape by. This feels shameful.
While I know logically that growing up through a decade of austerity has decimated wages while the cost of living keeps rising, relying on Universal Credit to supplement my income feels like failure. It feels like a greedy cop out as I’m lucky enough to be able to work in the industry I wanted to. I feel this way because that’s the way the system wants me to feel. If I’m too busy blaming myself, I don’t have the energy to question why almost one million young people aged 16-24 claim Universal Credit in one of the world’s wealthiest countries.
“Job security is fallible, and when your parents can’t afford to bail you out, the ladder of social mobility will crumble beneath you like dust.”
I didn’t expect to need Universal Credit, until I did. I grew up on a council estate in the West Midlands, in that kind of transient cosiness where having a roof over your head and food on the table is guaranteed, holidays in the UK or France are a welcome annual treat and Christmas comes with toys under the tree — but you’re only ever a paycheck or two from danger.
Living in the West Midlands, where just under 600,000 people are income deprived and three in ten children are growing up in poverty, I knew I was privileged to have two parents who both worked full time. Then I went to a red brick university, and suddenly my idea of privilege was blown into smithereens against a sea of Macbooks and yearly family skiing trips. I sunk further and further into my overdraft just to keep up with everyone.
Post-graduation, I was made redundant from my first permanent journalism job after three months. Suddenly, my blanket of privilege — renting shared accommodation in London, a university degree and supportive family — was ripped from under my feet and I was left with the cold reality; job security is fallible, and when your parents can’t afford to bail you out, the ladder of social mobility will crumble beneath you like dust.
“Am I unreasonable for wanting to go for a coffee or grab lunch with friends without being filled with guilt? Am I a bad person for wanting to treat myself now and then?”
Three years later and I’m still signed on to Universal Credit. Temporary low wage work in hospitality and the media isn’t enough to build up financial security in London. I needed the Universal Credit boost to take home the annual minimum wage. It was a safety net while battling chronic depression and suspected ADHD that often makes working difficult.
I resent the shame that this reliance makes me feel. I think, why can my similarly educated peers manage, while I can’t? How did I end up in this freelancing mess? Am I stubborn and ungrateful for not wanting to take another full time job that would leave me feeling suicidal? Am I unreasonable for wanting to go for a coffee or grab lunch with friends without being filled with guilt? Am I a bad person for wanting to treat myself now and then?
Right wing media, politicians and some middle-class centrists consistently peddle the narrative that benefits are for people who don’t work, because they just want to sit around draining the system. If they just worked harder, they wouldn’t need Universal Credit. Amongst the removal of the Universal Credit uplift, given to claimants during the coronavirus pandemic, the government have also bought back the Minimum Income Floor.
“It’s there, in black and white: if I’m struggling, it’s my fault. Tell me, how am I supposed to feel good about myself, when I’m made to feel like a parasite who should be grateful for the crumbs the government feeds me?”
My payments are currently frozen until I have a meeting with a work coach to decide if I am ‘gainfully self employed’, i.e. my main source of income is self-employment. If they decide I am, they assume my monthly earnings are around £13,000. And if they are less than this (which they usually are), my Universal Credit payment is still calculated based on this assumed £13,000, and I may need to look for additional work to top up [my] income.
It’s there, in black and white: if I’m struggling, it’s my fault. Tell me, how am I supposed to feel good about myself, when I’m made to feel like a parasite who should be grateful for the crumbs the government feeds me? How am I supposed to see this as a simple fact of my current needs, rather than a reflection of my failure?
While conversations surrounding Universal Credit — rightly — crunch the numbers for people hovering around the poverty line, we rarely have frank discussions about the mental impact of being bombarded with accusations that your struggle is entirely your making. I’m privileged in a lot of ways, meaning that one day I’m sure I will be free of Universal Credit. I can’t wait to be free of the power play they draw you into. I can’t wait to no longer have to navigate a system of potholes and barricades. I can’t wait to no longer feel indebted to a system that tells me I’m ‘one of the good ones’ (literally, a work coach told me that once). I can’t wait to no longer feel I have to explain myself to people who are too ignorant to realise that this could quite easily happen to them.
Sian (she/they) is a Freelance journalist and Editorial Assistant for Journo Resources. @_sianabradley
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