Tara's story is now overwhelmingly commonplace – except, unlike the masses of young people applying for Universal Credit for the first time over the past two months, she applied before the lockdown. As a working freelance photographer in her mid-twenties, she had already lost all her work by mid-March. She had no problem with the application form, but booking an appointment took five days of constant calling – around 30 times in total – and waiting on hold for two hours at a time.
“It took a lot of faffing about and making calls and confusion and waiting weeks," says Tara. When her appointment finally came around, she called them to find out it had been cancelled.
Her frustrating and anxious experience is becoming more common during the pandemic, as freelancers struggle to find work and those in more permanent gigs get laid off. In May, the BBC reported that nearly two million people had claimed Universal Credit. Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said there had been a “tenfold” increase in claims in just one week.
Universal Credit exists to support people on a low income or out of work. Announced by the coalition government in 2010 and introduced in 2012, the benefits scheme has been criticised by commentators, watchdogs and charities for providing vulnerable people with too little money and has been linked to an increase in psychological stress and even suicides.
VICE spoke to several young people about their experience of accessing Universal Credit for the first time. They described online queues for the government verification process reaching up to 70,000 people. One person missed their place in the queue as it happened overnight; another got to the beginning of the queue only for it to crash, meaning he had to join all over again. Some were unable to receive it due to issues with their housing as they were technically subletting or homeless. “There are a lot of loopholes within it which make you unsure whether you are viable,” says Immy, 28, who applied only to find she was ineligible.
The people we spoke to said that the process itself was difficult, tricky to understand and not user-friendly. “It’s pretty long and arduous,” said Jamie, 26. “Even though I was accepted, I still don’t understand it. I’m a fairly tech-literate native English speaker and I still found the process and design of it extremely frustrating and annoying. I feel it would be an absolute nightmare for an older person or someone who doesn’t speak English well.”
“Pretty much everyone in my industry at a more junior level is now on Universal Credit,” said Jessica, 30, who works in TV and is also receiving UC for the first time. “I know people who’ve had trouble with their landlords not declaring rooms in houses or living in warehouse accommodation, which means they’ve been left with no way to access housing support despite still paying average London rent prices.”
Jessica, like many young city-based workers, has returned to Yorkshire to live with her parents. “I was furloughed by two jobs, plus I had UC, but those three things together [will just] cover my rent – there’s no way I could afford to live in London right now. I still count myself as lucky for this in comparison to most, though.”
Problems with Universal Credit have devastated lives of working class and poor people since its conception. James Wadsworth, a personal advisor and social care support worker at Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council, helps those leaving care with issues such as housing, education and finances. He fills out their Universal Credit forms on a weekly basis and says he’s now spending much more time doing the latter, thanks to the lockdown. “The form has so many questions and so many of them are so inapplicable,” James says, adding that the fact professionals like himself can struggle to understand the application process only highlights the problems for vulnerable people trying to fill them in.
“The fact that it takes eight weeks upwards to get paid: how are people supposed to survive? That’s part of the whole food bank situation," he says. "All the stories about starvation and suffering under Universal Credit, it’s all so true. It’s horrific. If you lost your job and you didn’t have any savings, what would you do for the next eight weeks? It really is as bad as tabloid headlines make it out to be.”
Of the forms, he says: “We’re asking people who may be deemed vulnerable to have superhuman skills,” adding that the pandemic has highlighted that in the UK that “people who are educated and have jobs can be swept into poverty really quickly”.
The damage the pandemic has done to the working and financial lives of young people is about more than Universal Credit payments (or the lack thereof). The International Labour Organisation, a United Nations agency, released a new report on COVID-19 and young people this week, detailing that they've been affected by a “triple shock”. The virus, it says, is destroying their employment, disrupting education and putting insurmountable obstacles in the path of those who want to start work or change jobs.
As the summer begins, and lockdown restrictions start to loosen, many currently receiving Universal Credit are concerned that work could pick up temporarily and then disappear swiftly if a second peak of the virus hits after summer. This would mean they'd have to go through the UC process again. Thankfully Tara received her UC payments – it's enough to keep afloat on for now. But as Jess, a 22-year-old London-based marketing intern, says: “I’m just hoping this is my last experience with Universal Credit and that work-wise things can turn around for me for 2021. It’s a year I’m praying to forget.”