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The Benefits Trap

I’ve written a couple of posts this week about benefits. This post is about my own situation, but I’m hoping it will help people to see why some people may stay on benefits, rather than working.

Single Mother Ahoy Benefits Trap

Here are some figures for you.

When my maternity pay finished and I decided I would claim benefits until my year of leave entitlement finished, this is what I was living on:
Housing Benefit: covered my rent and council tax entirely.
Child Tax Credits: about £60 a week
Income Support: £72 a week, paid fortnightly for reasons known only to The Powers That Be
Child Benefit: £20.30 a week.
When I decided to go back to work, I spoke to my boss and arranged my hours. I spoke to the Housing Benefit people to ask what they needed from me. I spoke to the Tax Credits office to tell them how much I expected to earn for the new tax year.
I returned to work on 22nd April. 
S started nursery on the same day; I couldn’t afford to have her do full sessions before I was back at work.

My last Income Support payment was a week and a half before I started work.
When I got paid at the end of April, I should have received around £300 before tax.
My nursery bill at the end of April included the 5 sessions I’d had in April, plus prepayment for all of May: a figure of around £650, due to be paid in full by the 10th of the month.
My Tax Credits increased to £200 per week because I was now entitled to Working Tax Credits as well as Child Tax Credits. 

Even the least mathematically gifted among us can see that these figures do not add up.
Luckily for me, my boss knew (better than I did) the situation I would be in with my first month’s pay. He arranged for me to be paid for the holiday I’d accrued in the first 4 months of the year. 
Good point: I had enough money to pay my nursery bill, and afford some food for the month.
Bad point: I now had next to no holiday left to see me through the 4 weeks a year the nursery is closed, and any days I needed to take off if S was sick.
Another bad point: when I submitted my first payslip to the Housing Benefit office, they assumed I was quids in, and stopped paying my Housing Benefit. I explained to them (more than once, in person as well as over the phone, to more than one person) the situation with the holiday pay, but all they saw was the number in the corner of my payslip. The fact most of that figure went on paying my nursery bill (which I also submitted) was neither here nor there.
Now, in September, I am still submitting my payslip and nursery bill each month. My Housing Benefit (and Council Tax Benefit) are calculated in arrears, and I am sent an ever-thickening wad of paper showing adjustments made to previous and current entitlements. Recalculations, references to figures that seemed to have been plucked out of thin air, under payments, over payments. Miscalculations. Plural.
At various points over the course of four months, for the exact same week, I can have been liable to pay rent of £88, £55 or £30. Or more, or less. I stopped looking through all the paperwork after a while. It has changed and gone back and forth between these numbers more than once.
I have no idea how much rent I am supposed to be paying each week. Every now and then I email the rent office and ask them for a statement of my account to see how much is overdue, and then make a guess at how much of a backpayment the benefits office are likely to pay into the account when I submit my payslip at the end of the month. It is, ultimately, a guessing game.
My point is this: 

If I had stayed on benefits, I would be skint. But I would know exactly how skint I was. I could budget to those figures. 
Being back at work, I have had (so far) four months of never quite knowing if I’m going to make it to the next payment of Tax Credits. My monthly wage is swallowed by my childcare cost and rent, and part of my weekly Tax Credits is paid over to rent and Council Tax. I never know where I stand, whether I’m actually any better off doing this. 

I am not writing this in the hope of gaining your sympathy or pity; I just want to try and help you to understand why some people might choose to stay on benefits rather than return to work.

Vicky is a mother, a blogger, a podcaster and a social media trainer. She writes about life as a single mother, parenting and lifestyle type things.

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