Lifestyle

I'm on Universal Credit – I worry I won't be able to feed my kids or keep my fridge running due to soaring energy bills

MICHELLE sits anxiously by her energy pre-payment meter watching the last of her £20 credit run down to zero, trying to calculate where the cash for her next top-up will come from.

The single mother of three is worried about whether her next Universal Credit payment will come in time – or whether she will run out of cash to feed her kids and keep the fridge running.

She only added the £20 top up three days ago, six months ago it used to last for a week or more.

“It’s had a big impact,” says Michelle, 46, of the huge rise in energy bills and other household costs she’s faced.

“I’m on a prepayment meter and the cost has doubled, at least. With the smart meter it tells you down to the hour what time you’re going to run out.”

“The price of food has increased, the price of petrol has increased. It’s just had a knock on effect with everything, yet Universal Credit has stayed the same.”

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Michelle is one of millions who are facing soaring energy bills and higher costs for essentials from food to fuel in the worst cost of living crisis in decades.

But her Universal Credit payments have failed to keep pace with these rising outgoings – and she has had to seek out extra help to get by.

Nearly six million getting Universal Credit have seen payments rise in April by 3.1%.

But prices are increasing by far more than that, leaving many like Michelle struggling to get by.

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Official figures released today show inflation hitting an eye-watering 9%.

A grant from the charity Action For Children meant Michelle could replace her fridge after it broke down, and that she could continue feeding her children fresh food.

“It was a huge relief, but I also feel bad," Michelle told The Sun.

"In this day and age, you don’t really expect to be in that position. You don’t expect things to spiral out of control so much with the increase in costs."

Food vouchers from the charity have also helped her fill up the new appliance during the worst cost of living crisis in decades.

And Michelle is not alone. More than half of the charity's crisis funds have been given out to families on Universal Credit.

The help was first launched by the charity to help families struggling during the pandemic, but it has now become a permanent fixture to help thousands through the cost of living crisis.

Michelle, who lives in the West Country, gets the standard Universal Credit allowance of £334.91 a month and her social housing costs covered.

It means after all her bills go out and she pays for food she's left with nothing.

She’s unable to work as she looks after her disabled children who have complex needs from autism and epilepsy, and receives £69.70 carer’s allowance herself.

Her two older children aged 19 and 7 are supported by Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Disability Living Allowance (DLA), benefits which vary according to individuals' needs to cover the extra care required – but not everyday living costs.

Michelle already turns things off around the home when not in use to save cash, and has cut back on food costs for herself. But the changes she can make to her children's’ food and routines at home are limited because of their autism.

“I’m spending probably £30 a week more on food shopping on average over the past six months or so," Michelle said.

"It’s costing me £80 to fill the car at the moment. Before it probably would have cost about £55 or £60.”

Extra help

Michelle has also sought help through the Household Support Fund – a pot of cash for the most hard-up households from the government which you have to apply for through your council.

She said: “I used that for my gas and electricity. I got a prepaid Mastercard and put it straight on my meter. It was £250 and it was a big help.”

“It lasted for some time, but you’re very conscious, when it gets to the end, you’re still in the same situation again.”

Another tranch of cash has been made available through the fund as part of the government’s efforts to help ease the pressure on household finances.

Michelle says she will probably apply again if she’s allowed to a second time. She's still wafting for her local council to announce the details of the scheme and if she is eligible.

Along with many others across the country, she is also waiting for her council to give the £150 council tax rebate, a measure announced by the government to help with rising living costs.

Michelle said: “I'm a single parent, three children. So it does all help. I now receive Council Tax Support because I’ve recently become a single parent with children, so that will help and so will the energy rebate, but that’s not until October and I have to repay that over five years.”

More pain

At the same time theenergy price cap will rise further this winter, with experts predicting it could hit nearly £3,000 a year for the average dual fuel bill.

Michelle fears that she will need more help again when she has to turn her heating on in the colder months, as her Universal Credit is not enough to get by.

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children said: “Whilst our Crisis Fund can help to relieve some of these pressures, it cannot address the underlying causes driving rising deprivation or offer a solution for families bearing the brunt of this deep-rooted cost of living crisis.”

The charity is calling on the government to raise benefits in line with inflation and increase the child element of Universal Credit.

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“The Government committed to using the tax and benefit system to reduce child poverty in its 2019 election manifesto.

“And yet, with inflation set to reach its highest level for four decades this year, the policy responses introduced by the government to date will not do nearly enough to support low-income families."

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