'We honestly didn’t know how to survive' | CPAG

'We honestly didn’t know how to survive'

Published on: 
18 September 2020
Written by: 

David Whithorn

My name is David. I'm married with three children. I have worked several minimum wage jobs from care worker roles to handyman of a restaurant chain (I am now furloughed). I’ve had ongoing mental health problems and although I'm still medicating I feel I have beaten depression largely and my anxiety is more manageable. I am right now affected by the two-child limit and benefit cap - this alongside a stressful transition to universal credit has caused much stress to both my wife and me, putting a strain on our relationship, generally leaving us wondering how we are going to survive at times. 

Over the last 18 months I have been involved with the UC:Us group and we have been sharing our experience of universal credit and coming up with recommendations to help improve it. I personally got involved to try and help make positive change and so no one else would have to suffer the same as my family had to, and that's an opinion shared by the group.

It's hard to separate universal credit from the two-child limit and benefit cap because it is the same system that is neglecting us. Firstly, universal credit has been a nightmare, it has been one issue after another (advance repayments, tax credit historical debts we didn't know existed, more deductions because I received 3 payslips in the one month, taking more money off us than an education grant was worth, etc...). We are expecting something to crop up every month. The stress has had a severe impact on our mental health; there has been sleepless nights, comfort eating on credit, and selling belongings just to get by.

Aside from the mental torture there is debt! After becoming debt-free and getting rid of credit cards we had to get another because of universal credit - we honestly didn’t know how to survive! We now have two credit cards. And I would consider myself being good with money and budgeting. We had to fight to have historical debt repayments lowered to the lowest possible level and defer advance repayments for three months (only available once a year). I believe that charging those on the lowest income the maximum by default is nonsensical, surely it should be set to the lowest level from the start. After 15 months of repayments we thought we had it all paid off, only to be hit with another debt, when will it end? 

August 2019 was a happy time welcoming our third child. We were aware we wouldn’t receive child tax credit or equivalent but did not know we could also be impacted by the benefit cap. We were under the impression this was reserved for those who take the “mick” and have large homes, big TVs with sky sports packages and luxury holidays - but this couldn't be further from the truth - we have nothing. The children are missing out. We do sacrifice at times to ensure they have necessities but other times they don't get the treats they deserve, birthday card money has been needed to cover debts/electric top ups.

What would have helped?

A better understanding of, or information about, the benefits system and the impact the third child would truly have. As clearly we were not aware of the cap also affecting us. Although ultimately we were unexpectedly pregnant and it was never an option for us to terminate or give up our child (for personal and religious reasons). 

Better training of staff. A non-repayable grant was available to us (Northern Ireland’s Discretionary Fund) but we couldn’t avail of this as staff were not trained adequately and were not aware at the time we started our claim - this left us with debts in the form of advances that we should never have had. 

Scrap the two-child limit. At the end of the day we have three children, the third child exists whether the government acknowledges the third child or not. It is pushing more children into poverty - us included. 

The benefit cap should not be applied. Where they have already got a two-child limit in place should they be adding a benefit cap pushing children further into poverty? Double whammy. I am also in the limited capability for work group due to mental health issues and work part-time fluctuating hours but have been placed on furlough, is it fair to punish these conditions either? Ultimately why set an amount we legally need to live on and then make deductions on that? It doesn't make sense.


David Whithorn is a father of three and a member of UC:Us. He is about to start an MSc in Software Development at Queens University, Belfast.

David spoke at a recent webinar on the impact of the two-child limit. The webinar was organised by Child Poverty Action Group, the universities of Oxford, York and the London School of Economics and Political Science, as part of the welfare reform and larger families research project funded by the Nuffield Foundation. You can watch it here.