An open letter to Liz Jones of the Daily Mail

(click first paragraph for original Daily Mail article)
Living on benefits isn’t something that you can pick and choose to do one week at a time, when you feel like it. Circumstances take over and this becomes a way of life. Do you imagine that the majority of claimants, in the current climate, enjoy living on (or below) the breadline? And yet you chose to write a patronising article about how “difficult” it is and how you haven’t got a clue how much things cost complimenting that by bragging about how much you’re already in debt. You may be trying to show that you are eating humble pie but what steps have you taken since this experiment to rectify your situation? Your attitude to debt astounds me. You’ll see why as you read on.
I’ve been on benefits. Up until 5 years ago, my family lived on benefits for approximately 10 years. During this time we had to arrange to pay our bills weekly because monthly budgeting is near impossible. We also had card meters installed so we could easily see how much money was being spent on the heating and the electric. If there wasn’t enough to last the week, we turned the lights off, we wore another jumper and put another blanket on the bed. We had to buy “own brand” foods from the cheapest supermarket and we had to accept offers of second hand furniture (these were the days before Freecycle even existed, never mind being hip). Decorating the (local authority housing) house was a luxury we could ill afford so we used cheap wallpaper and cheap paint once in a blue moon. Carpeting was similar – usually cord or “end of rolls”.
At one point in those 10 years I managed to find a job in a nursing home as an auxiliary carer. I messed my housing benefit claim up and subsequently was convicted of fraud to the tune of £4000 – YES, FOUR THOUSAND POUNDS... NOT £150,000 - £2000 in housing benefit, £2000 in council tax benefit. Why? Because I’d written the wrong date down on one part of the form. I narrowly missed going to prison for this – my family (two young children and my husband) were distraught. That criminal conviction stays with me and almost prevented me from getting a mortgage four years ago.
We managed to turn our life around and I started work. Because of ill-health, it was decided that I would go to work full time and my husband would be the at-home parent. We literally scrape by on just my wage. What you spend on your appearance in one month is three-quarters of my monthly salary. How can you justify that? Also, the clothes that you are pictured in are “rags”. I can honestly say that at any time in my life – claiming benefits or working full time – that I have never, EVER, dressed in torn clothing (even when it was fashionable) – I take pride in my appearance but it doesn’t cost me £800 a month. What WAS the point in that photograph?
Even now, we have to budget our monthly spend and we find that there is often more month than money. The recent recession has increased prices for everyday items but my salary hasn’t increased accordingly. I am now in a position where I am worrying about how to provide for Christmas because, after the bills are paid to keep a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs, there simply isn’t anything left. And, yes, we use every budgeting tool available to us. I daren’t tell you about the expensive petrol I put into my car and how I squeeze out every last drop before I fill up again. I’d love to be able to use public transport (yes, the bus!!) but my office is based off the beaten track. We do have little luxuries like a budget package for Sky (phone calls, TV and broadband) for approximately £32 per month so why your broadband package alone is over £100 per month is beyond me. Do you have a special gold-plated modem?
You tried to cram every stereotype into your one week as possible. Why did you go and try and pawn your jewellery? You may have needed to wear your (fake) pearls to an event the week after. Would you really have bought clothes from Primark? If your “friend” didn’t pay for her glass of champagne why didn’t you shout after her and demand that she pays her share? And just in case you hadn’t noticed, you managed to spend £265, not £64. Where did the extra £201 materialise from? I’m damn sure I could do with a magic £200 every week. That would solve all my problems in one fail swoop.
Sell your frivolous purchases and start paying off your debts. You have had your designer sunglasses whipped off and proclaim to have seen the light but I’m sure you’re putting them back on again before you are blinded. You may think you’ve walked a mile in the shoes of those who live on the breadline but, believe me, you’ve only taken a couple of baby steps.
©Nicola O’Hara
aged 37 and a half
wife to one, mother of three, grandmother to two (almost)
living life to the max, frugally