2 Apr 2013

Could you live on £53 a week?

Iain Duncan Smith says he could live on £53 a week – but could he? Channel 4 News looks at the numbers and speaks to one woman who is struggling to cope on this amount of money.

“If I had to, I would.”

That is what Iain Duncan Smith said when he was challenged over whether he could live on just £53 a week on the BBC’s Today programme.

It is the amount that market trader David Bennett said he has as a result of the government’s welfare reforms. It is also roughly equivalent to the lowest weekly rate of jobseeker’s allowance, for young adults under 25.

A petition calling for Mr Duncan Smith to effectively put his money where his mouth is and prove his claim had 250,000 signatures by Tuesday afternoon. Politicians have done it before – in the 1980s, then-Tory MP Matthew Parris tried and struggled to live on the dole for a TV experiment.

However, as yet there is no sign that the work and pensions secretary is planning to take up the challenge, and his department declined to comment on the petition.

But could Mr Duncan Smith live on that sum? Indeed, could anyone – and, more pertinently, how many already are? Channel 4 News takes a look.

Benefits by numbers

Mr Bennett’s story will be familiar to many. He works but relies on various different benefits, including housing benefit and working tax credit, to keep him afloat. He says he has to live on just £53 a week, after rent – £7.57 a day – and has to borrow to survive.

And while some of Mr Bennett’s claims have been questioned – not least by The Daily Mail, which suggested he had a history of gambling – the fact remains that Mr Duncan Smith said that sum was one he could manage to survive on.

For the work and pensions secretary, it would represent a serious tightening of the purse strings. As an MP, his pay is £134,565. After tax, that amounts to £312.44 every day. His expenses claims alone would push him well over his £53 allowance – he recently claimed £110 for a Bose bluetooth mobile headset for the car.

In fact, for most people, it would be a challenge – the average UK household spent £484 a week in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available.

Helen Barnard, policy and research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, suggested it could be tricky for Mr Duncan Smith.

“Apart from anything else, this ignores the fact that surviving on such small amounts for a short, controllable period has a completely different impact to living on them for long periods with few opportunities to escape – as is the case for many people in our weak, insecure jobs market,” she told Channel 4 News.

IDS says he could live on £53 a week (Ciaran Hughes)

Tom Joyce, who left his previous job at the end of last year, said the instability was a major issue which left him “miserable”, trapped in his home and reliant on handouts from friends and family “simply so that I don’t go hungry”.

He told Channel 4 News: “The reason this is hard to live on is because I, like probably every other person in receipt of a benefit, has inescapable financial burdens from before they needed to rely on support.

“Things like telephone or internet contracts, insurance, or even bank charges…things you don’t give a second thought when you’re employed but you really feel the pressure from once that income stops.”

Recent research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the public thinks a single person needs to have a budget of £193 a week to have a decent standard of life – what the charity calls a “minimum income standard”. The charity pointed out that this figure is above both full out of work benefits plus council tax benefit, which comes to £85 a week, as well as the earnings of many people.

“It is very clear that benefit levels are a fraction of what the public believes is needed for a decent life,” said Ms Barnard.

“Around a quarter of the UK population live below the minimum income standard. It all means life on wages is hard enough – so what can it be like for those on even less?”

Coping with less

One woman who knows what it is like to cope on even less is Angela Morgan, who lives in Blackwood, south Wales.

“I know where every penny of my money goes. Every time I draw money out of the bank, I write it down. I make sure I keep receipts. I usually have maybe £2 or £3 left if I am very careful,” she told Channel 4 News.

Ms Morgan, a 45-year-old single parent with one daughter, used to work in the Foreign Office but has had to leave her job in the last month as a result of long-term sickness and disability. Overall, she estimates that she exists on £200 a week – including child tax credits, employment support allowance, housing benefit and child benefit. However, her rent is £122 a week.

I know where every penny of my money goes. Angela Morgan

“By the time everything is taken out, I am left with £53 to feed my daughter and my self, clothe us, and provide the stuff she needs for school. Think about that feeding two – the money goes nowhere,” she said.

“I shop around, I buy vegetables from the market, I go to budget supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl. I’ve worked since I was 19 and paid all of my taxes and national insurance. Now because of circumstances beyond our control, because of my health issues, we’ve had this massive drop,” she said.

She no longer has a car and says if anything broke, she would not be able to replace it. Her daughter’s father lives abroad so does not contribute.

“If it wasn’t for my mother, who is 70 and on the state pension, I wouldn’t be able to afford to buy new school shoes for my daughter,” she said.

“It’s very easy for people who have never been in this situation to judge. I was one of those people – I had a fairly decent salary. But over the last few years a rollercoaster of bad events have taken that away. It’s all very well for people to say £53, that’s wrong, there’s no way people can live on that. But there are people living on that, and less.”