Will the poorer get poorer after the benefit changes announced by George Osborne? Darshna Soni meets a single mum with eight children, who is worried she could be evicted because of the welfare cap.
Marie Buchan keeps me waiting for nearly two hours. When she turns up for our interview, she is flustered “I’m sorry,” she says “There was an incident near the school, I was just shouted at by a man I’ve never met before.”
I know I get more money that some people who work all day
It turns out that the man had abused Ms Buchan for being on benefits – he’d shouted at her and told her to stop “sponging off the state”.
Although she’s upset, she says she’s used to it. “I get that a lot. I’ve been called Birmingham’s benefits queen. People think I’m living a life of luxury, but I’m not, it’s just day-to-day existence.”
Ms Buchan is a single mother with eight children who lives off benefits. She knows that this is controversial and says she understands why some people are resentful.
“People see me and ask how I can afford to run a car, how I can afford to keep on having kids. I know I get more money that some people who work all day.”
The 33-year-old currently receives £26,000 a year in benefits. But under the changes announced in this week’s budget, that will be capped at £20,000 for those outside London. The chancellor has been accused of raiding the pockets of the poor, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculating that 3 million households will be worse off.
Ms Buchan already saw a drop in income when the previous cap was introduced. She has fallen into arrears with her rent, and wonders how she’ll cope in the future. She currently receives help with her council tax, child benefit, child tax credits and income support. It works out at around £500 per week.
Because of the previous cap, she now only receives 50 pence per week in housing benefit and has to pay the rest of her £137 rent from this. But once the changes come in, her income will be cut again to £385 per week.
Her weekly bills will take up a larger percentage of her income. Research by Oxfam has found that those living on the poverty line are ill-equipped to deal with sudden drops in income and are often unable to manage their budgets.
“I already find it difficult, I’ve been advised to get a smaller properly. But I’m actually on the waiting list for a bigger property, for a five-bedroom house, because there’s nine of us altogether and we haven’t got enough room as it is.”
One of the most controversial aspects of the budget was the announcement that from 2017, child tax credits will only be paid for the first two children. Polls suggest this is popular among some voters and many of the leader columns in today’s papers welcomed the changes. But critics argue it has a which of eugenics about it.
I ask Ms Buchan how she feels about the policy. “It’s really bad, it’s like something that you’d expect from the third world. Why are they telling us how many kids we can have?” But I put it to her that many people limit the number of children they have based on what they feel they can afford. “Why didn’t you take responsibility and keep on having children, when you couldn’t afford them?” I ask.
It’s a question she admits she has asked herself. “In a way, it was like an addiction. I got pregnant at 19 and then that was it. It was tough. But then I just kept having more. I know I probably should have stopped. It isn’t easy. I don’t have a good routine with the kids, I struggle to get them all ready for school in the mornings. Some nights I just sit on the sofa and cry with the stress of it all.”
She worries that her children will suffer as a result of her choices. When I meet them, they all seem happy and they play together on a huge trampoline in the garden. But the eldest two tell me they are fed up with talking about benefits, of everyone always asking them about it.
Ms Buchan has received a lot of criticism for what some see as her easy lifestyle. I ask about the childrens’ father. “I’ve been on and off with him for years. He does give me some money every month. And he does have all the kids at the weekends.”
Despite the criticisms, the chancellor insists his policies will help work pay by giving claimants an incentive to move into work.
If Ms Buchan was to find a job working 16 hours a week, she would be better off. I ask her if she realistically thinks she’ll ever get a job. “I will, I’m sure I will. I’m already going to try and go to college in September.”