Sarah is a single parent with one son aged 12 years old. She lives in privately rented accommodation.
After her son was born Sarah did not work until she did an access course in 2011 and went on to university to study physics.
Her finances as a lone parent student are very up and down, not least because during the university summer holidays she has to go on to jobseekers allowance (JSA) even though her son is not at school and she has no access to childcare. This means that for those few months she is subject to the job hunting criteria of the benefits system and the conditionality that goes along with this, even though she is not able to take up work because she will be returning to university in September. This makes her finances unpredictable and causes her financial problems. She says:
‘Because I'm a single parent with a child under 12 and a full-time student I sign on JSA over the summer, which is the most pointless exercise. Anyway, I have to be available for work and looking for work and all that stuff and it's like, I'm not going to get a job but I'll jump through the hoops that you want me to jump through because I need to do this for the summer’.
‘So when I went and signed on this summer and you go for the initial signing on meeting where they wag their finger at you for an hour, what they said was, “there's been a change in the law, there is a change in how things work. We are going to tell you up front how these changes affect you and will affect your benefits and we want you to know that this in no way reflects the opinions of the people that work in (this) job centre”. And then they gave us the whole rundown of “if you miss one signing on or don't go to a job interview you will lose a month’s money, housing benefit and benefit”. And then it's 13 weeks and then it’s whatever it is, a year or six months or...’
‘If you miss a signing, if you don't go to a job interview, for whatever reason, they can take your benefit away for a year! What are you meant to do?’
‘This is the thing, I get the same tax credits no matter what I'm doing’ (Sarah receives the maximum tax credits for her son whether she is a student on whether she is on JSA). ‘But the way it works at the moment, I lose out on housing benefit. Any advantage that I would get from having a little bit more money from my student loan (compared to JSA) I lose in housing benefit. The year before last I was getting £97 a week (when on JSA) and now I'm getting £47’. This is because they treat Sarah's student loan as an income and because it has been increased on an annual increment. She says that she will have to go and discuss this with the student advice centre as the amount of increment of student loan does not equate to a 50% reduction in housing benefit. ’It seems to be that any little advantage you get in one direction is just taken away in another anyway'.
Sarah has been experiencing anxiety which is exacerbated through the negative and stressful experiences she has during her university summer holidays: ‘the problem with dealing with this stuff is the emotional energy that it takes and that's what I'm out of right now. It's really difficult. This is the stuff that I find it most difficult to deal with. I can deal with just about anything else but when it comes to the benefits agency (huge sigh) it’s just so hard to deal with’.
Sarah says that the stress from all this makes her really ill. The reason she had resits in August was that she was suffering from exhaustion in April and May brought on by the stress of her ever-changing income. Sarah explains how stressful she finds the benefits system. She feels it has a power and the control over her because it upsets her so much. She says that affects family life too because she gets so stressed out and feels that she takes this out on her son, and there's only the two of them so he bears the brunt of her stress.
‘It’s just dealing with the greater monster of the DWP that I don’t like. And I suppose it makes me feel poor, because I am, because I’m depending on benefits, you know?’
‘I’m a lot better this year, because I’ve been really ill, I’ve had really bad depression and anxiety and stuff over the last two years really, two years ago it started really badly’.
Sarah says that the situation with the job centre of the last few years has really a negative impact on her well-being.
‘I was waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning, bolt upright, heart pounding, worrying about something, and going “what is I’m actually worrying about here?” And I would have to talk myself down to go back to sleep. And it was things that are outwith my control… And it always comes down to money. It’s always about money. That’s always the root of it. I don’t worry about other things’.
‘Because it’s that transition period between end of semester and benefits kicking in. It can take six weeks before the rent gets paid. And I don’t like my rent not being paid. I don’t care about anything else, I’ve got food storage, we’ll manage, but the rent’s got to be paid, that’s not something you want to find you’ve got suddenly to pay £1200 out, because you need your rent paid you know? The church are very good about that actually. But that’s a real stress as well, having to go cap in hand and explain yourself when you’re 46 years old, you know? “Yes I’m still not making ends meet. I’m really sorry can you help me?” And of course they say yes and they’re very good. I’ve got to do better. I feel that, you know? Even though it’s actually stuff that’s completely out of my hands’.
Sarah doesn’t access services as she says she is too busy. For example, when she went to her doctor suffering from stress and exhaustion she was given the contact details of a talking therapy group. She hasn’t contacted them yet, even though she really likes the idea of the group, as she is too busy and she says it is time management issues that contribute to her stress. She says it would just be another thing to do which is what she does not need.
‘It causes me nothing but trouble. Last scholastic year I had to restart my housing benefit because they stopped it... it’s just stress, stress , stress, stress, stress, all the time. Are they going to do it properly? Every time, twice a year I have to change my circumstances with them. And it’s never once gone right, not once. I know what I’m doing, because I do it twice a year. Not once has it gone without a hitch. I’ve ended up at Christmas having to choose between paying my rent and having Christmas. That’s not on’.
Sarah says that her financial situation and the stress it causes has led to negative health consequences. Last year she was not able to do her exams at the first sitting due to stress and anxiety. ‘last year I was so ill, just everything piling up, piling up, piling up’.
Services accessed: Church (voluntary organisation), GP services, Citizen’s Advice Scotland, student support services at university.