Sometimes money is so tight for Emma and her family that she and her husband can eat only a solitary egg between them for dinner. Feeding their young children – aged one, two and six – is their priority. The couple survive on whatever is left.
“By the end of the week, when the food shopping has dwindled away, it’s a case of having a complete mismatch of dinners, and sometimes my husband and I don’t eat,” explains the 28-year-old.
“There’s nothing worse than the kids being hungry, on top of everything else. There have been nights where it’s a case of we’ve got one egg left – let’s halve it.”
The Kent-based family have been at the hard end of the economic crisis that has been born out of the coronavirus pandemic. Emma’s husband, a wine and beer wholesaler, was put on furlough in March and – other than two months between September and December – has been out of work and on 80 per cent of pay since.
Emma first started claiming universal credit in January last year because she had two young children to look after at home. Over the past year the benefit has come to be a lifeline for the family – and even with this support, they are still sometimes left hungry.
The mother-of-three is one of millions who face a cut to their income in April if government plans to end the £20 uplift to universal credit – which was announced last April – go ahead.
The Labour Party is calling on ministers to give claimants reassurance by guaranteeing the uplift will be extended, and have forced a vote on the plans in the House of Commons. However, the opposition day motion will not be binding, so it will not change anything.
Pressure on ministers to change course is ramping up though, with some Conservative MPs having criticised the plans, including Stephen Crabb, who told Times Radio on Monday morning that now was “not the moment to withdraw that money from these families”.
Meanwhile, numerous think tanks have warned against cutting the uplift. A report by the Resolution Foundation on Monday warned that the government would be pushing Britain’s poorest households further into poverty if the cut goes ahead, while Tory MPs in the Northern Research Group (NRG) said scrapping it now would be “devastating”.
Emma, who has been working with the Nuffield Foundation to help improve understanding of how low-income families are struggling during the pandemic, says the planned cut would push her family over the edge.
“I don’t even want to think about what that would do to us. I can’t cut back any more, I really can’t," she says. "I don’t know where that cutback would come from. It’s going to be one of the bills and then we’d be left in a spiral of debt. It’s a catch-22.”
She explains that things have been harder during the current lockdown than at the start of the first one last spring: “Since we hit the winter months, we’ve had to have heating on constantly; even for the home learning, we’ve needed the internet going the whole time, things charging. Bills have just rocketed.
“We are touching the surface now as it is, and that’s just with basic bills, just to keep the house going and a roof over our head.”
Carrie, 35, from Brighton, is similarly concerned about the cut to universal credit. A qualified librarian who lost her part-time job in a university library in November, and who also suffers with health problems, says that even with the current £20 uplift, she is struggling to get by.
“The only way I’m getting by is by bartering bills – by calling the providers up and trying to get more lenient payment plans – using food banks and the generosity of friends,” she explains.
“One friend is kindly buying my cat food, and another is topping up my brick phone, but I don’t know how long I can lean on them for.”
She says: “I’m just pulling through, but barely. If they take that uplift away, it would be catastrophic. Not having gas and electricity would be the immediate thing, but ultimately I could lose my home.”
Carrie says that while universal credit worked well as an in-work benefit – and it helped her to make ends meet while she was employed – as an out-of-work benefit, it is simply “not enough to live on”.
“I think this cut will make a lot of people homeless. It will push us from poverty into destitution immediately,” she says, adding: “Benefits have been frozen for so long. This should have been a long overdue increase. To cut it when so many people need it is just wrong.”
Another individual who will be hit by the uplift if it goes ahead is Alex, 27, who was laid off from his four-day-a week office job in November, at which point he claimed universal credit to help him keep his head above water.
The London resident, who lives in shared private rented accommodation, was initially still coaching sports sessions several times a week – which he had previously been doing alongside his other job – for which he was earning about £700 a month. But when the current lockdown came into force, these sessions were cancelled.
Alex received a government grant under the self-employment income support scheme, providing him with £500 a month for three months, but he says this has had the knock-on effect of reducing his universal credit for those months – and will still leave him struggling to get by.
Alex is now relying on savings that are quickly being chipped away, but he fears that it may soon force him out of London and away from his support network.
“It confirms the feeling that the government doesn't really care about helping people,” he says. ”I'm mostly on universal credit because the sports coaching that I do is stopped because of Covid. Universal credit isn't enough to live on anyway, even worse if it gets cut back.
“It isn't a supportive system – it's like they want us to beg to be deserving of some support, instead of them coming alongside us and helping us out.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting the lowest-paid families through the pandemic and beyond to ensure that nobody is left behind.
"That’s why we’ve targeted our support to those most in need by raising the living wage, spending hundreds of billions to safeguard jobs, boosting welfare support by billions and introducing the £170m Covid winter grant scheme to help children and families stay warm and well-fed during the coldest months.”