Living on welfare in Waltham Forest

Shelly Berry examines how cuts to the welfare state are affecting people in Waltham Forest, and talks to some who have seen these impacts first hand

Walthamstow Job Centre

The Job Centre in Westbury Road, Walthamstow

The last five years have been tough, especially for those on a low income – or no income at all.

The coalition government made significant changes to the welfare system, introducing universal credits and replacing council tax benefit with local schemes.

Following its victory in the general election this year, the Conservative Party has taken this further, pledging to freeze working age welfare benefits for four years, introducing a benefits ceiling of £23,000 per London household, capping child tax credit to a family’s first two children, limiting universal credits to six months for younger people and introducing market rate rents for people in social housing on a higher income.

For many people, these are just facts and figures that have no real meaning. But for others across the borough, these changes will hit hard. While a lot of people bemoan the gentrification of Waltham Forest, a 2013 report named it the sixth most deprived London borough and the 15th most deprived in the entire country.

The same report showed Waltham Forest’s economy was the smallest in the capital and, although unemployment reduced since then, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) states that 11.4 percent of working-age people are unemployed, compared to 8.9 percent in London and 7.8 percent across the country.

According to the London poverty profile, 39 percent of families claim tax credits to make ends meet, compared to 31 percent across London. This is particularly worrying as, three years ago, 31 percent of children in Waltham Forest were reportedly living below the poverty line.

Sam, a support worker from Walthamstow, works with families who are feeling the pinch. “I’m working with one single parent with four children who will see her benefits go down,” he says.

“They are already struggling to manage. Her relationship broke down and she’s in this situation through no fault of her own. She can’t go back to work because she has to look after her youngest children.”

It isn’t just people with families who are facing tough times. According to ONS, in 2012/13 seven percent of adults in Waltham Forest claimed incapacity benefits. This has now been replaced by the Employment Support Allowance (ESA), but those entitled to it are finding it harder to make a claim and many have been ordered to look for work despite recognised health problems.

Lauren, a mental health worker from the borough, has seen the effects of this first hand.“There are so many hurdles now,” she said.

“People have to fill in a form about 100 pages long and detail their entire history. A lot are then told they’re not entitled as they don’t have a disability or illness.

“You don’t say that to someone who’s depressed and suicidal. We’re supposed to be supporting people to get their lives back together and these attitudes about mental health don’t help.”

Anthony, who lives in Walthamstow and is currently claiming ESA, is nervous about having his benefits stopped.

“I’m worried they will try to push me back into work before I am ready,” he said. “If you resist you’re told you don’t want to get better.

“I do want to get better and do this and that to help make it happen. My mate works but, after he has paid his rent, people on JSA [Jobseekers Allowance] are better off than him.

“I don’t want to sound like a bum, but I need enough money.”

Sam shares Anthony’s unease about labels used to describe claimants. He said: “One of my biggest concerns is how the reforms have been marketed.

“For example, the media still describes people out of work as ‘feckless’.”

Lauren has been on the receiving end of these preconceptions. She said: “I was on JSA in November and December last year and it was the most depressing experience of my life.

“At the Jobcentre there were cameras and security guards everywhere and my advisor wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. We were treated like criminals.”

While most people agree something needs to be done to reduce the number of people who rely on welfare benefits, questions need to be asked about how the current government is going about it.

“Cut, cut, cut, is not the right approach,” argues Sam. “There’s no support to get people back into work, and that is what we need to be investing in, along with out-of-school activities to allow poorer children to socialise and develop skills in order to achieve in the future.”

A new welfare reform bill, making even further cuts to state benefits, was voted through to its next stage of reading by the House of Commons in July. For residents in Waltham Forest already struggling to keep their heads above water, it means things could get even worse.

All names in this article were changed as the people interviewed did not wish to publicly identify themselves. You can follow Shelly Berry on Twitter using @ShellyBerryUK.