Sarah Ensor talks to families who are battling to keep their heads above water
Each month, for two weeks after they’re paid, Jen and Andy of Chorley, Lancashire can scrape by. But halfway through the month, the money runs out. “We have £40 to last us two weeks,” said Andy. “We have to check the bank balance every day,” added Jen.
Jen and Andy are both 26 years old. They have an eight month old daughter, Róisín. They both work, and take home around £1,200 a month each. But it’s not enough.
They are just one of the millions of families struggling to make it through the month. Research for the Unite union in July showed that by the third week of the month, 67 percent of workers run out of money.
On average a month’s pay packet only lasts 21 days. Workers have to borrow more than £300 a month to make ends meet.
To add to the burden, Jen has been on statutory minimum maternity pay for the last seven months. This has cut her income by two thirds. “I’ll have to go back to work next month because the money runs out,” she said.
Paternity leave for Andy was just two weeks. He had to give two months’ notice and take it in week-long blocks.
When Róisín was born, Jen was in labour for two days and needed an emergency caesarean. But Andy couldn’t be there during the day, she said, “because we were saving the paternity leave”.
The extra costs a child brings have made things even more difficult. Even after Jen goes back to work they will not be able to afford childcare for Róisín every day. The cheapest local nursery costs £36—but that’s only for seven hours.
To cover their actual working day it’s an extra £11. Without help from their families they couldn’t both work. Róisín needs clothes, too, and the costs quickly add up.
“We were given three sacks of baby clothes by a woman at work,” said Jen. “I don’t think we’d have managed otherwise. She grows so fast.
“We had summer clothes, but it rained all summer and she didn’t have a coat. Now we have a coat that’s two sizes too big. Buying anything that’s not food and nappies feels like a luxury.”
A holiday is out of the question. Even a trip to the nearest cinema in Bolton costs them £8 each. Since Róisín was born, they’ve only been able to go once.
At the other end of Britain, in Exeter, south west England, Sue lives with her husband and two children—Charlie, 5, and Mark, 16.
As the children have got older, she said, they have only got more expensive. “Shoes are a real problem,” Sue said. “Mark has size 12 feet so there’s no such thing as cheap shoes for him.
“At least I don’t have to buy school uniform for him any more. But for Charlie it’s £12 for school sweatshirts, £10 for T-shirts—and £30 for shoes.”
Sue admitted she skips meals to make the family’s money last longer. She shops late to find discounted meat but doesn’t eat it herself, “as Mark needs it much more than I do”.
“It’s toast or pasta all the way for the last ten days of the month,” she said. The cost of the children’s clothes means Sue almost never buys clothes for herself.
“I have one pair of jeans, a couple of skirts, a couple of tops,” she said. “It would be shaming to wear the same clothes all the time—but I rarely go out. No one would notice.”
Back in Chorley, the town centre reflects the reality of how people are being squeezed. There are 15 payday loan shops and pawnbrokers within 12 miles of the town centre. They charge interest rates of up to 2,670 percent.
When money is tight, the costs of having a child can really make the cracks start to show. Jen and Andy tried to put up a baby gate in their house—but it went straight through the wall.
“We thought we were lucky when we bought this house in 2009 because prices were falling,” Andy said. “But you can’t hang anything on the walls. They’re like cardboard.” Jen added, “Ideally we want three kids, but you can want as much as you like—it’s what’s in the bank.”
In Exeter, Sue said, “The most wearing thing about being short of money is that it never quite leaves you alone. You know that feeling when you’re watching TV and you suddenly think, something’s wrong, what is it?
“There is this constant nagging worry about how we will make it to the end of the month.”
More than 40 percent of Jen and Andy’s income currently goes on rent. Another 40 percent on bills and travel. The £320 total for bills includes gas, electricity, water and the phone bill, as well as their TV licence and council tax.
Travel costs include £140 a month on their car and £80 on petrol, even though they use it as little as possible. This is on top of public transport costs.
By the time they’ve paid interest on their loans, they’re left with just £250 a month to spend on food for them and their daughter.
Their earnings don’t stretch far enough for them to make it through the month. Yet they earn £50 a month too much to get tax credits. That’s thanks to the Tory government changing the thresholds in April.
“This report is about the prejudices of the people who work for this charity.” So said Tory MP Douglas Carswell as the charity Save the Children launched its first ever appeal for children in Britain earlier this month.
The Daily Mail newspaper called it “an obscene political stunt for Save the Children to equate British families with the starving poor of Africa”.
But the real reason rightwingers were cross is that the charity’s statistics offer an insight into child poverty in Tory Britain. Its report, titled It Shouldn’t Happen Here, says 3.5 million children in Britain are in poverty. They live mostly in families that have at least one adult in work.
It shows that Jen, Andy and Sue are far from alone in struggling to afford everything their children need. Some 80 percent of parents the charity surveyed said that they were borrowing more money to buy their children essentials.
Among parents earning less than £17,000 a year, one in five said they couldn’t afford to buy their children new shoes when they needed them.
More than one in seven could not afford a child’s winter coat. Over one in ten parents have cut back on food for themselves so their children have enough to eat. And the same number say their child has missed out on celebrating a birthday.
Some names have been changed