It Happened To Me: I Grew Up On Benefits

From breakfast to rent to lunch to winter coats to dinner, the State footed the bill. So I realise what it means when David Cameron talks about cutting benefits, and it makes my stomach feel cold.
Publish date:
November 7, 2012
benefits, welfare, universal credit, iain duncan smith

When I tell people I grew up on benefits to a single mother who had me when she was 18, they’re usually pretty surprised, and I usually feel a little twist of shameful joy when that surprise registers. I guess this is down to an internal, shared snobbishness.

The thing is, at 25, saying out loud “I was brought up on benefits. I had free school meals. I never had the right frigging trainers. I was scared all the time.” is something I’ve only just become comfortable with. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’ve only recently begun to admit it to myself.

Now I look back and I see that from breakfast to rent to lunch to winter coats to dinner, the State footed the bill. So I realise what it means when David Cameron talks about cutting benefits. And it makes my stomach feel cold.

It wasn’t just me, growing up. There was me, then there was my awesome brother Ben, and then my brilliant sister Bethany. And then dad left. Went to live with Fucking Alison and Her Fucking Kids. Leaving three kids under 12 with a mother who, quite frankly, was not up to the job.

Or any job; my mother’s mental illness and drinking problem meant that in all the time I knew her (19 years, give or take) she must have had two paying jobs, neither very well paid, neither very long-term.

Without a maternal income, and with dad as deadbeat as they come, we lived on benefits. We ate because of benefits. With it looking more and more likely that child benefit (for a start) will be frozen after two children, I had a sit down and thought “what would we have done, if we’d only had two kids’ worth of child benefit?” and I came to the conclusion that, most likely, we would have been totally, irrevocably fucked.

Maybe the coal man (yeah, I grew up in the North like a murrrrfuckin’ Stark!) wouldn’t have been paid, so we wouldn’t have had any heat. Or maybe we wouldn’t have had new shoes. Or perhaps we might not have eaten. After what I’ve written, it won’t surprise you that I grew up on ‘an estate’. Go figure, I guess.

Except it wasn’t a council estate: we were lucky enough to have been ensconced on a countryside estate in a cute little worker’s cottage in a tiny little village before dad left. When he fucked off, it turned out that the landowner (I dunno, Lord Something Or Other) was pretty cool with having DSS claimants in his less desirable dwellings. What a gent.

So the DSS paid the rent and, living in a village largely peopled by pensioners, we didn’t have the ‘classic’ benefits experience. One of the proposed cuts is to crack down on this sort of thing, to some extent. What would we have done if housing benefit hadn’t covered our home? After dad left, we would have been shoved out, into one of the council streets in the nearby town. They weren’t grim by any measure, but they weren’t home.

Under the cuts the Coalition wants to introduce, we would have gone hungry, or cold, or worse. We would have been taken out of our home and forced into another, whilst coming to terms with the breakdown of our parents’ marriage.

Practically speaking, we’d have been nearer to pubs (weirdly, the local town had about a billion of them) which would have meant mum would have been home less often, drunk even more often and her alcoholism, which already crippled us in so many ways, even more common knowledge than it already was.

There seems to be this idea of the deserving poor. I suppose, on paper, my mum wouldn’t have been in that column. She was a sociopathic alcoholic who abused and neglected us. So, no, maybe my mum wasn’t part of this magical, mythical category. But we were, right?

Surely, in fact, all kids on benefits are. Unless the Tories are going round blaming benefits children for their parents’ perceived failings...? When I think of kids who are about to have their lives ruined by the benefits cuts, I want to cry my eyes out. Because they’ll suffer more than their parents, in the long term, through no fault of their own.

They didn’t ask to be born into families that “aren’t working”, they didn’t ask for single parents or disabled parents or mentally ill parents or undereducated parents or lazy parents or parents who can’t find jobs because HELLO there’s a recession on.

When I read accounts from parents earning over £50k, by the way, whining about how “the child benefit went into the swimming lesson kitty” or “but it was nice to have that extra bit of money,” I want to scream. Because child benefit day in my house was shopping day, and we’d have food in the cupboard.

For the two years before sixth form, I didn’t eat lunch, because I was so afraid to get to the till and say “I’m on the free lunch list” to the till lady, in case somebody overheard me. That shame, I don’t know where it came from. And maybe I’ve only gotten rid of it now that I am what might be termed a success story.

I’m 25 and I have a degree and (soon) a Masters from a good university and I write for a living and I live in London with my boyfriend in a flat that I pay rent and Council Tax on and I don’t really have to budget and I’ve never been on the dole and I speak nicely and I get to do nice middle class things like buy steak knives in John Lewis.

And I can do all of these things because of benefits.