At the beginning of April I wrote a post about Iain Duncan Smith and his throwaway comments regarding the welfare reform system entitled "How (Not) To Survive On Benefits". It went off at a bit of tangent and I talked about my 19-year old son who is currently unemployed (albeit in the Territorial Army) and mentioned a bit about my daytime job (working with 16-25 year old NEETs).
Events snowballed a bit after I hit the publish button so, at the end of the month, it seems appropriate that I round everything up. The original post hit a chord with many people and there are some very personal stories shared in the comments (comment thread). It was also suggested that a round table discussion should take place which would collate the many opinions that were being heard on the social media channels.
So I did just that. I organised a Google Hangout On Air with four other people from very different walks of life and with very different personal situations. A planned half hour discussion (with a vague agenda) turned into an hour and a half conversation about finances, housing, savings, benefits, tax credits and so much more. It's a long time to set aside to watch/listen to the whole conversation but if you are signed into Google then YouTube will save your place each time you watch so you can come back to it at a later date.
With thanks to +Chrissie Saunders, +Jax Blunt, +Lynn Schreiber and +Ruth Douglas for their participation on the night and also to everyone who was watching live (or has viewed since) and interacted on G+ or YouTube.
After a conversation with Katie Haworth on Twitter (she is assistant to my local MP, the Rt Hon Jack Straw MP) I sent a link of both the Hangout and my blog post to our local Labour Party contact email address. Last week a letter arrived from the constituency office thanking me for the email and also enclosing a copy of a letter that had been sent to Iain Duncan Smith, highlighting specific sections of my post and the hangout in relation to his recent comments.
So where do we go from here, especially when we consider that this week two events specific to benefits and the cost of living are very much in the news?
Firstly, the new Universal Credit is being rolled out over the next four years (source: BBC News) and is something we touched upon in our Hangout discussion. Benefit entitlement (for job-seeking claimants) will be merged and paid monthly, the intent being that it will replicate a monthly salary so the move to an employed income will be smoother. This will include rent and council tax entitlement (instead of being paid direct or deducted) and will rely on honest, appropriate budgeting and the availability of a basic bank account. This is going to be a huge change for many families. A month is a long time, even for those of us who are paid a salary. I still get my Family Allowance and Child Tax Credits weekly to help my own budgeting system.
Secondly, this week is #livebelowtheline week (ref: Live Below The Line UK) where people are encouraged to live off just £1 per day for a week to highlight global poverty. The BBC details how easy it is to live off this amount with appropriate planning but the breakdown of costs relies heavily on the fact that cheap(er) pricing is available through bulk buy and store cupboard essentials. Something that is not always possible on tight budgets. Maybe this is where IDS got the idea from that he could live on £53 a week?
There is never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution because we are all so different. Guidelines are great as long as they are achievable and manageable long-term and this discussion is ongoing. In a world where unemployment is rising, many jobs are reliant on having digital/online knowledge (ergo, retraining is needed for many) and the school leaving age is rising there are still many changes that we have to embrace. It can feel very overwhelming though, can't it?