The 55p universal credit helpline is just one way the least well off are forced to fork out more than anyone else.
There was a grim inevitability to the news that Department for Work and Pensions’ helplines for people confused about universal credit are costing many claimants money they can’t afford, with demands that these calls are moved to a free 0800 number. Problems include long waiting times, people placed on indefinite hold and overworked, undertrained staff who don’t know the answers to callers’ questions.
All this is going on, with phone charges of up to 55p a minute, as people struggle to deal with claims. This is just more proof that there are those who have a vested interest in turning the welfare system into a warped, confounding mash-up of The Crystal Maze and the 12 labours of Hercules.
It’s a disgrace, but is it a surprise? It’s long been obvious that, all too frequently, the poor pay more. Nor is this confined to people having to make ludicrously expensive phone calls so that a bewildering benefits system can be decoded, doubtless with the kind of doggedness that used to be reserved for, say, cracking Enigma machines at Bletchley Park.
This poor-pay-more rule applies to many of the most basic aspects of life. Let’s run through just a few.
Homes: jobless/low-income claimants can’t dream of getting a mortgage, which can work out cheaper than renting, and means that you at least have an asset and some security. So they rent, often in the notoriously extortionate private sector, at a cost their benefits may not completely cover, so they have to make up the difference.
Heating water (for baths, showers, washing up) can mean finding money for greedy meters. And heating their homes is a luxury that many people decide they can’t afford.
New clothes (for job interviews) – forget it. And one of the little acknowledged side-effects of the “vintage” trend is that even charity shops can get pretty expensive these days. Nor do they tend to own washing machines and tumble dryers, so they use laundrettes, pay-as-you-go-style again.
Food may be from a food bank or the cheapest takeaway or microwaveable ready meal they can find. Even as the pious continue to drone on about how cheap and easy it is make a “nourishing soup for the whole week!”, anyone half sane has worked out something different.
Even if they could stand this insulting hipster-slop day after day – is it the trendy millennial answer to workhouse gruel? – it would require ingredients, a kitchen that extends beyond one conked-out, grease-encrusted ring on a hob, utensils and the money for the gas or electricity to cook it.
Travel: skint people tend to live in areas with crummy public transport, can’t afford to own or run cars, nor invest in the type of travelcards that bring prices down, so again it’s often PAYG, the most expensive way to get around.
Moreover, people don’t have their own computer or affordable, decent wifi, so again they have to travel for these facilities. Mobile phones, which most people would deem a necessity, also tend to be PAYG and credit would be quickly used up, especially, for instance, if people were to ring expensive benefits helplines that blow their entire food budget for a week.
This is just a short list – there must be many other ways that broke people are fleeced because they can’t afford the initial outlays or access the superior long-term deals that make life easier and cheaper.
Instead, they have to do their best in pressured, hand-to-mouth PAYG-lives. A remorseless grind, where everything you try to do costs not just money that you haven’t got, but sometimes more money than better-off people are paying for the same services.
In this context, overcharging struggling people just to have their benefits explained to them may sound cruel and sick, but it also makes perfect (albeit shameful) sense.