27 April 2022

Voices from the Village: Sara's story - The truth about Universal Credit as a student parent

Sara*, age 27

It’s the 26th day of the month again. According to the readers of the various press outlets, I should be getting enough Universal Credit to afford a Mercedes Benz or a trip to Belize. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. I spent the last two weeks making a list of all the debts I have. I am a student parent. The day I went on universal credit, my son was 2. He is now 6. No one I know wants to be a single parent living from hand to mouth.

Like many on Universal Credit, I was told I would be better off if I was working or in some sort of education, I would be better off. Instead, I was worse off due to childcare costs.

During the summer holidays from university, I had to urgently find employment because there is no student finance. Working from home or working flexibly wasn’t something many people did at the time. In the end, the little I made from my 15-hour job had gone to childcare and transport. I was barely breaking even.

With Universal Credit, you get childcare in arrears, something many childcare providers resented and were reluctant to accept. To secure a childcare place for my son, I needed money upfront for the first month, a deposit and due to my son’s allergies, I also needed to provide his specialised food. I could barely keep up with my existing bills, childcare was something I couldn’t afford. And when you didn’t work, Universal Credit sanction you. On Universal Credit, you are treated with no mercy, no emotions.

I found myself spiralling down the dark hole of debt. Credit cards to pay off credit cards and keep the lights on, store credit to put clothes on my son’s back, to get my laptop for university, transport to go to school. It was too much.

There were days I would go to university without eating so that my son had food, nappies and clothes. My son needed specialist formula due to allergies, so there were higher costs. I’d sew my leggings as they tore. There were days I wanted to give my son up for adoption or sign away my parental rights to someone else. The guilt of my son was growing up in poverty tore me up. There were days my son appeared to see my pain and feel the effects of trauma. He would give me a cuddle, or not act up, because he could see his mother was under pressure and wanted to reduce my stressors. I became depressed, suffered anxiety and wouldn’t leave my house for weeks on end due to extent of my financial struggles. I wanted to kill myself on multiple occasions.

I went to education to better myself, but some mornings I wanted to quit and I felt the will to go to university run out. I would have a cry and look at my son, then remember why I was doing what I was doing. I needed to complete my degree so my child can grow up under better conditions. I was already a stereotype, as a black single mother to a boy, I didn’t want my son to grow up and be groomed because I couldn’t give him what he needed for his age. I wanted to take him away from London, I wanted to give him what I didn’t have growing up. So I kept telling myself this is temporary.

In my class, there were 8 other student parents on Universal Credit. 6 quit their degree halfway due to financial restraints, the stress that being stuck in a cycle of poverty does to

one is one not spoken about enough. They thought leaving their courses and going to work zero-hour contracts would make life easier for them, so that at least their kids can have three square meals a day. I can’t blame them.

Universal credit was described as a system that would make getting access to financial help easier and better, but that was far from the truth. Many claimants were like me; suffering, barely making ends meet, raising children in poverty and making impossible decisions between heating or electricity, water or food. I wish the readers of newspapers who speak ill of people on benefits would realise that even though there is 0.01% that abuse the system, the rest of us are struggling and wish we didn’t have to be on them. In the time of rising costs and low wages, there is no extra support for students parents like me. We have no choice but to look to Universal Credit and to be made to feel less than every time payday comes around.

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