"I am driven into debt by my journey to work" - Caroline's experience

Published on: 
19 April 2022
Written by: 

Caroline, a participant in Covid Realities

This is my story and my experience. I grew up in a low-income household in Northern Ireland. I’ve experienced rationing and remember well walking to get the free butter and sugar as a young child. I know how it impacts on a child’s education and on how they see themselves. I didn’t see very much in myself growing up but I am still here, and now watch as my own child’s life experiences run parallel to mine just 40 years apart. 

I have always worked in the caring sector with children. It is the lowest paid work available and what I was encouraged to do when I left school. I will be encouraging much better from my child and will not accept my child’s school offering her any less opportunities than the more privileged children. But every opportunity comes at a cost.

I strive to do better for myself as living on a low income is no fun. But when you face constant barriers to improving yourself and showing your child there is hope and opportunity still out there, you begin to ask yourself questions. Where is the opportunity? Where do I need to be to access it?

I live in a rural area. Many might vision this as countryside, out in the sticks, but I live in a small town, 15 miles from the main town. There are less than 3,000 residents so investment in our community is poor. We have poor transport, poor roads, low rates of pay and possibly above average unemployment, many out of work due to poor health. We have family run businesses and don’t get as much choice in how we can save pennies and pounds. Access to our health service can be difficult and it takes weeks to get a GP appointment alone. So again, where do I need to be to gain opportunity? Because it isn’t a fair system, we do not all get fair access or support.

I rely heavily on my car to get me from A to B, I need it to go to work. But if it breaks down I have nothing to pay to have it repaired, and if I don’t repair it I can’t get to work. I am driven literally into debt by my journey to and from work. 

On my low earnings, which are a combination of my pay and ‘help’ from universal credit, I have to find money for diesel, for “work” clothing, to keep my car working and for childcare for my own child. 

Your children are experiencing hardship as you work. As a classroom assistant my current job doesn’t pay me over the summer, yet cleaning and cooking staff get paid, so I’m already looking out for a new job and yet again we see children in education being impacted by staff turnover. 

Now as we face an extended “cost of living crisis” (it’s not new to so many who have been living through this crisis since the start of the pandemic, many have never got out of austerity) we will see even more ask the question how can I afford to go to work. The stress and mental exhaustion on people is placing undue stress on our health service but this is what living with low income and worry does to people. I just feel sad these days at how we treat people, our own people. We are NOT all in this together, people need help up, not stamped down. 

Universal credit and the work conditions have people caught in a trap, you can’t refuse a job offer so employers can take advantage. The system needs to change. It needs to actually support people with the additional expenses of getting back to work. We need to see a system that supports anyone in need with no judgement or stereotypes. Never have we needed it more.