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How much people really get in benefits

12 September 2014

Recipients of social security are seen by some as feckless, but the reality looks very different, says Bob Holman


THE press and politicians often condemn the unemployed who are in receipt of social-security benefits. A national survey recently reports that more than 80 per cent of respondents thought that the unemployed "fiddled their claims".

Easterhouse Baptist Church, in Glasgow, which I attend, has about 70 worshippers. Some are on moderate incomes - nurses and teachers, for instance. Some are in low-paid posts, including those on zero-wage contracts. A number are unemployed.

Three years ago, the church opened a community café. Drinks and fruit are free; hot snacks are cheap. Local residents drop in. Some customers are in financial need, and the excellent National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) allows one of its staff to attend, in order to offer advice.

I am one of the volunteers who help to run the café and engage with customers. I have some knowledge about the welfare system, and, if they want, I can discuss their financial difficulties - but as a friend, not a statutory worker. My friendships with three of them suggest that those on benefits may be very different from the public image.

In order to evaluate the level of their incomes, I used the research of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which asked a sample of people to say what they thought was the minimum income for "a socially acceptable standard of living". Essential items included three nourishing meals a day, furniture, fuel, a television, clothing, a holiday, and access to activities "necessary to participate in society" (A Minimum Income Standard for the UK in 2014). 

Donald and family

FIFTEEN years ago, Donald was a regular at our church. Unable to find a job, he and his wife and daughter moved south of the border, where he found employment. After a few years, he was stricken with epilepsy so severe that he could not work. They returned to Scotland, and to our church.

As well as housing benefit, the family's income consists of employment support allowance, disabled living allowance, and child benefit: a total of £219.26 a week, or £11,401.52p a year. The minimum income standard for a family this size is £395.20 a week: that is, £20,550 a year.

I asked him to record the family's expenditure for one week. It went mainly on payments for furniture, gas, TV licence, cleaning materials, fares to supplement their daughter's trip to college, and food. Total outgoings were £217.66p. The family had £1.60 left over.

The most notable outlay was £67 a week to repay a loan for furniture, from a well-known shop that advertised it as being for those out of work, but the small print was a minimum 29.9% APR, plus insurance. They do not take holidays, are short of clothes (which is hard for their teenage daughter), and they never go to a restaurant or a cinema.

They spent £40 on food. A government department shows that, in 2012, the average weekly household expenditure on food was £29.29 per person. For this family, it was £13.33. The bulk of food money went on bread, potatoes, milk, and pizzas. By the end of the week, it was not unusual to run out.

Donald welcomes people to church. A regular at the café, he puts up the notices outside, and cleans up. At our yearly camp, he washed up, helped to patrol the grounds, and enjoyed the fellowship.

In Scotland, one third of all households with incomes below £20,000 have no savings. When something extra arises - the children need new shoes, for instance - some of them borrow from the loan sharks. The centre of Easterhouse now has three pay-day loan shops, and a pawn shop. 

Anton and family

ANTON and his family are from West Africa, and have found asylum in Britain. He is a skilled oil-pipe worker, and soon obtained well-paid work, which involved going abroad. Early in 2013, his travel documents were due for renewal. Months passed, and Anton was unable to travel. He had to apply for social benefits. The family's income, per week, from job-seeker's allowance, child tax credit, and child benefit, was £322.31 - well below the minimum standard of £590.75.

He recorded a week's expenditure: it went mainly on food, bus passes to school, gas, mobile-phone top-up (Anton had to make frequent calls to the Home Office about his documents; he also had to reply to potential employers), and cleaning materials. The total was £303.36.

The largest cost was food, at £105. The favoured items were potatoes, vegetables, meat, bread, milk. Little was spent on salad, and nothing on fruit. It works out at £21 per person per week.

Overall, the family spent £18.85 less than their income; this is being put aside for a new cooker, as the existing one is beyond repair.

This family contributes to the church's discussion groups, and to meetings about the persecution of Christians. The son was able to talk to me about the day they fled from their country, when his brother was shot dead. I shared my war-time experiences, when my mother and brother were buried alive in the Blitz. It has drawn us together.

The CAB and church members helped Anton to negotiate with government departments. Then he phoned to say: "Wonderful news. I've got the documents." He hit a snag: he had to travel to attend examinations about safety procedures, and the cost was £600. Church people lent him the money, and now he works. 


PAMELA was brought to the café by a friend. Her father had been a heavy drinker, and, as a teenager, she took heroin, and served short spells in prison. Life improved when she moved in with a man she loved, and she worked steadily as a cleaner. After 13 years, her partner died. Depressed, she resorted to drinking.

For a while, she was on job-seekers allowance. She is obviously in ill-health, has arthritis in one leg, and she cannot afford bus fares. She applied for sickness benefit, and was temporarily placed on employment support allowance of £112 a fortnight. Her weekly income is thus £56. This is £141.86 less than the £197.86 required for the minimum-income standard.

She spent £50.70 in total. Bread, potatoes, meat, and milk accounted for £15.70; alcohol was £5, and the rest went on gas, electricity, cleaning materials, and postage. She had to skip meals. Critics of benefit recipients will seize on the fact that Pamela spent £5 on alcohol; but volunteers are helping her to cut it down.

After her spending, Pamela has about £5 left over. She wants to save for a warm coat. She is concerned that she is falling behind on her TV licence. She has never had a holiday.

She talks warmly about the volunteers at the church café: "They were so good to me, they gave me what was left, like bread, milk. . . If I did not have people like that, I would have nothing."


THROUGH the church and cafe, I have become friends with these three recipients of state benefits. All are short of essentials, but most worrying was the lack of sufficient food.

Recipients are often regarded as lazy and feckless; my friends are not like this. Donald and Anton are desperate to work, and all of them are helpful members of the community. My experience is backed by statistical academic studies, such as that by Professor Tracey Shildrick, who reports that, apart from disabled people, nearly all claimants work when it is available (see "Low pay, no pay churning", in Poverty, Summer 2012).

I hope that more Christians will help those who struggle on low benefits. If they moved to poorer places, they would be more likely to make friendships with those in need. They, too, are God's creatures who should have a proper share of his resources.

Friendships are not the complete answer, however. In the study The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better (Allen Lane, 2009), Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett make a strong case that more equal countries have fewer social problems. Those who relate closely to people below the minimum-income standard may have their eyes and hearts opened, so that they also campaign for God's resources to be more fairly shared. 

Bob Holman is a former Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bath, and the author of biographies of Woodbine Willie and Keir Hardie, both published by Lion Hudson.

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