When I read them for the first time, I laughed.
What else can you do? It’s laugh or cry, and trust me, Universal Credit makes you want to do more than cry. It makes you want to give up completely.
More than that, it forces you out of a life. It pushes the vulnerable into crisis.
I say this, because it’s what I experienced.
I applied for Universal Credit when I was unemployed last year, and ended up being pushed into homelessness, poverty and abuse.
It’s common for people to think that those who apply for welfare are lazy.
In fact, Victoria Derbyshire recently posted a clip of Jack Monroe, an author and activist, speaking with Toff from Made in Chelsea.
Toff said: ‘You see people that are sat there, that are clever, can go and work, and choose not to. They choose to go and sign on.’
If that was really the case, I’d understand people’s anger.
Of course, it doesn’t help that shows like Jeremy Kyle depict individuals who perpetuate the stereotype of welfare seekers, that they’re sat around all day, not wanting to work, claiming money from the hard-working taxpayer.
I wish that was true, because it would make the system simpler, and Universal Credit would make sense.
People who can work, but don’t want to, should be given a financial incentive to work, get into employment, and voila, problem solved.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen the reality with my own eyes, and can confirm that it simply isn’t the case.
I’ve worked since the age of 16, taught myself my A-levels while working part time with my own flat and worked part time jobs throughout my time at university.
After graduating, I became university staff but the funding ran out after six months.
So I applied for new jobs, and received an offer to work at a national publication in London.
I moved across the country to the capital, but the job fell through due to changing business needs.
You’d think it shouldn’t take too long for an experienced young person to find another job pretty quickly, right?
I was in the capital, and had years of retail and hospitality work under my belt, alongside a degree, journalism and graduate experience.
I didn’t want to apply for Universal Credit right away – I didn’t want to take the money when I still had a bank loan to live off.
I applied for 20 jobs a day to start with. Half of them graduate roles, half of them retail and hospitality roles.
I got interviews each week, attended, did my best, but got knocked back because somebody else had more direct or recent experience.
When I looked at the ratio of applications to roles, I saw that, on average, 60-100 people were applying for every job I was.
Before too long, I realised I would have to apply for Universal Credit.
So I filled in the online application form and waited.
Five days later, I got a call saying that my application had been automatically closed.
Despite giving my current address on my application, the system had a different address on file, so I didn’t read as eligible for Universal Credit.
I was told I’d need to travel to my local Jobcentre Plus, fill in a change of address form, wait for the system to process it, call up again, make a new claim, then await a callback with an appointment.
I asked the woman on the line if she was joking. She wasn’t.
So I turned up to the Jobcentre Plus, spent 20 minutes filling out a form, then got told not to fill in any applications. I was meant to apply for Universal Credit online.
Yeah, tried that. Didn’t work, did it?
After explaining my situation repeatedly over the course of two hours, watching three staff stand and scratch their heads over what a change of address form was and where it could be, I was eventually sent away and told it would be sorted.
Four working days later, I’d heard nothing, so I called back.
I’d been applying to 20 jobs a day, attending three to five interviews a week on average, and my money was running out.
I was told that I couldn’t be found on the system, and I had to reapply over the phone.
The adviser on the line asked me questions I didn’t know the answer to – such as the full names and dates of birth of all the tenants in my house.
‘I’ve only been living here for a few weeks, I don’t know that information,’ I told him.
‘Well, if you can’t tell me anything, I can’t progress your application, and this whole call is useless,’ he told me irritably.
There was no need for him to be irritable – I was the one paying premium rates for the privilege of listening to his anger.
Eventually, I was told my application was being processed, and I got a call with an appointment a week later.
When I went in, I was told I’d need to wait six weeks until my first payment.
By this point, my credit score was so low, I couldn’t apply for any other loans.
To this day, my credit score stops me from doing a lot of things.
I can’t even apply for rentals that run credit checks and there’s already a housing crisis in London, so my options are severely limited.
On file, I look like somebody who is irresponsible with their money and runs up big bills buying luxury goods.
In reality, I was forced to live off credit to survive.
I was still expected to travel to my Jobcentre on the train every week, attend interviews and pay for my living costs, despite rapidly depleting funds.
I did so, expecting that my efforts at job hunting each week would be recognised by my work coach.
Two weeks in, he asked me why I was applying for graduate jobs.
‘You need to set the bar lower,’ he told me, handing me an application to be a night cleaner in a supermarket.
I felt like he was telling me to give up on my dreams.
When I told him I was getting interviews, but being told that other candidates had more experience, he told me I wasn’t working hard enough.
I struggled not to cry. I was working so hard and being punished for no reason.
I was applying for 30 jobs a day by this point – spending eight hours a day filling in online forms, emailing CVs to companies, tweaking cover letters, updating my LinkedIn profile with as much experience as I could.
When my money finally came through, it was only a fraction of what I’d been told I would get.
I asked what was going on in my next appointment and my work coach shrugged.
‘Dial the call centre,’ he told me, pointing to a phone.
The woman on the line told me that my eligibility for housing allowance had been deducted by the assessment team, as I wasn’t eligible under the criteria.
‘What criteria?’ I asked.
‘You don’t meet the shared housing criteria that makes you eligible for the housing element of Universal Credit as you’re under 35 years of age,’ I was told.
‘What am I supposed to do for rent? Why wasn’t I told this sooner?’ I asked.
‘You can apply to your local housing authority,’ she told me.
‘You’re making me choose between having a roof over my head and food. What am I meant to do?’
‘I know it’s hard, trust me I know,’ she told me.
‘I don’t think you do know,’ I told her, anger mounting.
‘Thanks for nothing.’ I hung up, and started to leave.
‘Get back here!’ my work coach yelled from across the room.
I froze, and turned around.
Everyone was staring at me. I was forced to walk across the room, bright red with embarrassment, while everyone watched.
‘Have you stopped complaining now?’ he asked me.
‘I am incredibly angry right now, and our appointment is over,’ I said, struggling to keep the rage out of my words.
‘I would suggest I am given some time to process the latest decision that’s been made about me.’
For once, he didn’t say anything – just shooed me away with a flick of his hand.
I knew I had to spend the meagre funds I’d been provided with on transport to interviews, so my rent went unpaid and I was evicted.
I put all of my belongings in storage, and moved in with a friend I’d met a few weeks previously.
I barely knew him, but it was sleeping on the floor of his bedsit or sleeping on the streets.
His room was filthy. A blackened mattress lay on the floor, next to a sink covered in dust. Spiders nestled in the corner of the ceiling.
I spent the next two months being routinely guilt-tripped into sex, with the unspoken agreement that, because he had housed me, I was to give him my body in return.
I applied for 40 jobs a day.
I’d wake up, sit on the mattress, and spend all of my time filling out application forms, attending interviews across the city, and receiving rejection emails.
Then I’d be abused, go to sleep, wake up and do it all over again.
I attended the Jobcentre, and they repeatedly told me I’d been on benefits for a long time.
They told me I should be trying harder.
If I stayed on Universal Credit for much longer, they’d need to refer me to a specialist clinic to get me back into work.
I gave up on fighting. It was clear they wouldn’t listen to my efforts. I was just somebody taking up their time, being lazy, not wanting to work, sponging off the government.
Sleeping on the floor of a strangers’ bedsit, going hungry for days at a time, getting repeatedly rejected for jobs in every sector from marketing to hospitality, was not good enough for them.
My spirit was being ground down every day by people who did not care how I felt, or have any desire for me to be happy.
Then I received another cut.
I saw that, if I’d still had my own place, I would have had enough to cover the rent – then have 75p remaining for the month.
Eventually, one of my friends worked out what was going on and told me to seek refuge.
‘This is horrific, you need to get out,’ he told me.
By this point, I felt dead inside. I’d had everything taken from me. My money, the roof over my head, my self esteem, my body. Everything.
Universal Credit had pushed me into homelessness, poverty and abuse, and the trauma is something that remains with me to this day.
When I found refuge, I was picked up by an officer who drove me to a nondescript house, in the outer suburbs of London. She offered me a cup of coffee.
I looked at her, bewildered. Why did I deserve a hot drink? What was the catch? What did I have to give in return?
She showed me into a room, and told me it was mine. I was given a care package, and a bag of food.
The door closed, and I sunk to the floor. I didn’t even know how to cry. I was numb.
Why was I being given an entire room to myself? Why did I deserve this luxury?
Food? For free? Surely it was going to be taken off me. This had to be a cruel joke. That’s all my life had been for the last six months.
That’s what Universal Credit did to me: it destroyed my self esteem and made me think I was worthless. What’s more, that I didn’t deserve to be given food and a roof over my head.
‘I didn’t do anything wrong,’ I told a therapist three months later.
‘I just tried to make a future for myself, like everyone else in this world. I worked hard. I did everything asked of me, and more. I don’t understand why it got forcibly taken from me.’
Yes, I’m in therapy – after the experiences that resulted from claiming Universal Credit, the abuse I went through, and the symptoms of PTSD I’ve started having.
Obviously I have to pay for it myself each week – getting access to healthcare is a luxury many of us cannot get on the NHS.
Fortunately, I have a therapist who was so horrified by what I went through that the rate for each session is severely discounted.
I became so desensitised to the sexual violence that I would talk about it in a matter-of-fact monotone, face expressionless, sometimes laughing slightly to deal with talking about how disgusting the events were, the shocking nature of the things I was talking about so calmly.
In fact, I didn’t cry at anything I discussed over the following four months, and I’ve been abused over 30 times.
The other day, I went to therapy, and discussed the details of what Universal Credit had done.
‘I applied for 40 jobs a day, and they told me I wasn’t working hard enough. They cut my money, and I was evicted, I was homeless, and I got abused. They gave me 75p a day.’
My voice cracked on the last word, and I started crying.
Abusive people, at least in my experience, don’t pretend to be good.
You know what you’re getting with them. That doesn’t make the experiences easier to deal with, but it’s clear cut.
What made me cry is the fact Universal Credit has people believing those on benefits are lazy. Then they make you think you’re worth nothing.
They trot out slogans which, combined with television depictions of those receiving welfare, have people believing that they could walk into a job, should they want to – but they can’t be bothered.
I used to think that, after university, I’d graduate and all the experience I’d gained would guarantee me a job fairly quickly.
What I learned is that, the minute you slip through the net, you get pushed to the floor, then repeatedly kicked, over and over.
Some people give up. I know people who have committed suicide over benefit cuts.
Universal Credit calls itself a service that makes work pay, when really, all that happens is the most vulnerable people end up paying with their happiness, their security or even their lives.