Wednesday, 28 January 2015

A month on benefits

I know I shouldn’t, but I was watching Channel 5 just after Christmas when my senses were assaulted by a program entitled ‘Too fat to work’. I have to be careful here because you have already judged me or my opinions and I quite agree because I also found myself judging myself for watching the terrible, lazy, right-wing pushing, sensationalist journalism that was being beamed at my face. The program was designed to enrage and shock, it was calculated to create a ‘how dare they’ attitude and a ‘I’m paying my taxes for that??’ rant. I will fully admit that I started that way myself. The longer I watched, the more I was sucked into the editors bias cut of these peoples lives.

If you didn’t have the pleasure of watching this glimpse into the minds of the most exploitative people I have thankfully never met (and I’m talking about the production company here), then please visit 5 On Demand and take a swizz. In the meantime, and after I had been somewhat calmed by Mrs P, I reflected on why exactly had I been so angry. Was it the work vs. benefit culture debate? I don’t think so, I understand that these families represent a tiny and extreme example of the whole. Was it the apparent ‘life owes me’ attitude displayed? Not really, if real at all, I expect this was magnified to an ‘entertaining’ extreme by the program itself. No, I think what really bagged me a fighting tiger were the references, particularly by a single mother towards her overweight daughter, that they couldn’t afford to eat properly with the money they receive on benefits.

Now, again, I have to be careful and highlight that I truly believe that this statement, at the risk of repeating myself, is a small example and cannot be said to represent a larger whole. However, it really struck a chord with me because it seems to be a popular mantra at the moment usually by the Daily Mail represented right wing to support a populist hard line against ‘benefit scroungers’, but on the other side of the argument, can I deny the increasing trend of obesity and the reported weight related issues with those on benefits? Personally, I would say that the problem starts at home. How much would you pay for getting those extra minutes in front of the telly? I’m not just talking about money here, I’m talking about time, health and energy. It seems to me that the price of ‘convenience’ (and by that I mean spending as little time in the kitchen as possible), presents as a slow decline in the ability and understanding of the population at large to care about food and cooking. Something inside does not allow me to accept that in 2015 a family cannot afford to eat appropriately on benefits, but at the same time who am I to pass comment? Yes, I have lived on benefits but not for very long and I certainly didn’t have to support a family.

So let’s find out shall we? Let’s find out exactly how difficult it is to feed a family of three on the equivalent benefits that would be available if we weren’t working.

First, full disclosure; I am clearly not going to live totally on benefits for a month. That would be very difficult to organize and actually not really what I am interested in. I want to confirm to myself that a family can eat good, healthy food on a budget limited by the current benefit system. Therefore, because I want to make sure I do this as genuinely as possible and get an impression of the true pressures that comes with the situation, I need to understand exactly how much money I’ll have. I should also highlight here that I’m sure that people can look at my calculations below and find holes, this isn’t right or that isn’t fair etc. All I will say to that is, I tried to take average values where possible and sense checked all of this with two single parent families I know who have lived on benefits for a considerable period of time. I have also used only very basic benefit calculations, no utility discounts or additional disability payments – I am trying to replicate the real base level of value available.

A quick look at gives me just the information I need. Two adults, not working and a dependent child living in an average two bedroom semi in Milton Keynes will receive 36 pence short of 400 quid a week. That includes part of the council tax and rent but nothing else.

per year
per week
how to apply?
Tax Credits
Child tax credit. 
Jobseeker's Allowance
Your entitlement is made up of £113.70 in income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance. 
Council Tax Support
Your full Council Tax bill of £21.24 per week will be reduced to £4.25 per week because of your entitlement to Council Tax Support. 
Housing Benefit
You should not have to pay rent as you qualify for full Housing Benefit.
For more information on what qualifies see eligible rent for Housing Benefit
Child Benefit

Total Entitlements

Average costs of utilities were researched here:

I then added in TV and phone costs which I would consider essential for most families these days. Therefore, a fixed monthly cost of £163.13 against an available monthly income of £930.10 after rent is removed.

That then gives us a monthly total of £766.97 for disposable income but here is the big assumption; I’ve taken 30% to cover food costs. Which gives me a £230.09 a month or £57.52 a week. I’m talking about just food here, nothing else, not washing powder, light bulbs or pet food. Now, I know that some people have to include all these things in their weekly shop but this experiment is about the consumables and I figure that £536.88 a month would be enough to cover the other basic, household costs and more so no moaning or whining please!

So how to start? I’ve noticed that most budget recipes calculate pinches of this or teaspoons of that – 1p or 2p here or there. That’s fine if you’ve already bought the jar but I feel that would give me the opportunity to cheat. I’ve already got a store cupboard built up and replenish it every few months so the only way I can be sure that this experiment is representative is to assume the cupboard is bare, therefore everything that we eat will be costed from full bought packs. I am also assuming that a kitchen would have at least a frying pan, saucepan, a knife and an oven. I’m hoping that’s fairly safe and free from controversy.

Now, what constitutes healthy eating? I'm going to have a couple of very simple rules; firstly, no ready meals. In my, humble and totally non-professional opinion, ready meals are one of the main driving factors in destroying the joy of cooking. So, no pre-packed, ready to go or made for your convenience all-in-one dinners, sauces or anything else that is ready in two minutes or less. I'm not talking about cutting out everything that's processed here but if you are confused about the difference between the use of ketchup and a pre-made pasta sauce then fire up Google and educate yourself. 

Secondly, at least three portions of fruit and veg a day. I know, I know I should go for five but this is the real world so let's be realistic here, with portion control and a decent amount of exercise, I'll be happy with three good portions per person per day.

So - we start on Sunday... best get planning!! 

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