I became trapped, waiting two months for support

What is it that traps people in food poverty? What can help to unlock it?

We visited Salford Food Bank, a busy and growing Trussell Trust food bank in Greater Manchester. There, we met client Clair Richards, who kindly agreed to share her experiences. This is her story…

I worked in a primary school but then I fell in town and I’ve had sciatica, so have been off work. Then, six months after I’d fallen, they realised I had fractured my spine so I have been for scans for that as well now.

I came out of work suddenly and have been in a mess with my benefits since. I was only working ten hours a week but I have been on ESA now for seven weeks, but I’m still waiting for my full assessment papers.

And I asked them about the winter fuel allowance but they have said I have to wait until all the paperwork is processed – and you know how cold it was last week. Until they decide which ESA group you in, the work-related one or the other one, you cannot get the winter fuel allowance.

I was also charged £57 for a phone call of more than two hours to Employment Support. It’s 55p a minute. How can they justify charging that much. I thought my contract gave me unlimited calls, but it’s not for all numbers. Considering we are on benefits as it is, and you can’t make a new ESA claim online, why are they charging us that much? There must be a lot of people stung by that.

You end up trapped in these circumstances through no fault of your own.

You can wait up to six to eight weeks for things to be finalised on benefits, and in the meantime you have not got steady money coming through. It’s no wonder people end up in this predicament. There should be some kind of safety net for people when they are waiting. There is nothing for people there. You are expected to live on fresh air for two months. They need to address that stop gap.

It’s very frustrating when you have not brought things on yourself and they expect you to wait so much time before they award you anything. I had worked at the school for a year and had been a teacher as well before that. I had had sickness pay but then was on sickness monitoring.

In a previous care job, I had been off for six weeks with a chest infection, and they said if I was off again I would lose my job – but I was working with the elderly, and didn’t want to come in unwell. I said I would rather leave than wait for them to sack me, but again I was waiting for benefits to come through and was left with no money.

It should not be happening in this day and age. You see it in the news, it’s getting to the point now where people are working and having to come to food banks. You are trying to better yourself and still cannot eat. It’s crazy. Nobody wants to be in the position to have to come here for food. It’s not a nice position but it’s happening more and more now.

They have got to sort the benefits system for a start. They have this stop-gap situation and in that time you will still have your rent and bills to pay. Two months is a long time to wait and if you are in private accommodation they are not sympathetic. Luckily I am in housing association property and they have been supportive.

Wages are still low as well, and everything else is going up. You cannot afford things you need; you don’t have the money. It’s crazy. They say on the news that you are better off working, but a lot of the time you are not. You are still struggling.

The bigger picture

First-hand accounts like Clair’s are important. They help us all understand the causes of food poverty, appreciate more fully the human impact it has, and identify potential solutions.

Clair is not alone in her experiences. Elsewhere on this website, many other people who have had cause to use food banks have shared their experiences, in the shared hope that we can create a more compassionate and just society.

Clair is receiving Employment Support Allowance (ESA), the benefit paid to people who are unable to work due to illness, injury or disability. Research last year found that more than 40% of food bank users are on ESA, with a further proportion awaiting an ESA decision.

New research published last week, from a study in Glasgow, included similar findings, noting that: “The relationship between recent welfare reforms and food bank use identified in the study is particularly striking, with those impacted by the reforms being more than twice as likely to have used a food bank as other people in deprived areas. The vulnerability of those out of work due to long-term illness or disability to food bank use, a group historically better protected by the social security system, is perhaps also indicative of the extent to which the roll-back of the safety net function of the welfare state for this group is having detrimental impacts on food security.”

In addition to benefit problems, errors and delays, the freeze on working-age benefits in recent years means people on already low incomes have become worse off in real terms. In October, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation projected that an extra 470,000 people would be in poverty by 2020 if the freeze continues, but demonstrated that if benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance kept pace with inflation, then 380,000 people could escape the rising tide.

The End Hunger UK campaign brings together people, communities and organisations from around the country. We have outlined nine proposals that would reduce and ultimately end hunger in the UK. We all want a compassionate and just society, and we can get there if we work together, share stories and share ideas. Please take a look at the campaign proposals here, see how you can get involved, and help create a society where everyone has access to good food, and where nobody need go to bed hungry.

In Salford, where we spoke to Clair, a lot has been done to address poverty, particularly by putting people with personal experience at the heart of the work. One notable project has been the Salford Poverty Truth Commission, which was launched in July 2016 and which held a one-year celebration event in October 2017. You can read more about that project here.

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