The woman I’ll call Laura works full-time in Sainsbury’s, surrounded by shelves and shelves of everything you can eat, from pasta to freshly baked bread to chocolate. Some of the shoppers that filter through the checkouts buy an extra tin or two, which they drop into a box left by the local foodbank.
“I’m the one who lets the people from the foodbank come in, who will say ‘there’s the box’,” she says to me, above the murmur of conversation in the cramped church hall.
Laura could be a pin up for the Prime Minister’s description of the “just about managing”. She is four months pregnant, and every bit the working mum. Her phone is decorated with a picture of her family at their youngest daughter’s confirmation. Her husband also works full-time, in HR for the NHS. They describe their situation as “comfortable”.
Yet despite the tea, cake and church, this is no coffee morning. We are sitting in the Hammersmith and Fulham foodbank, two weeks before the 2017 Spring Budget, and Laura is here because she cannot afford to feed her family. She finishes her story about the supermarket donation box by describing how the foodbank volunteers would take the contents to feed the hungry. “Now I am actually saying – that’s me.”
At first, the way Laura describes it, she just had a very unlucky February. Her adolescent son got tonsillitis, and ended up being hospitalised. She took a week of unpaid leave to look after him. But she, too, fell sick, as a complication of her pregnancy, and spent the rest of the month recovering. Although her doctor certified she was unwell, she could only claim two weeks of sick leave. As a result, her pay check for the month was just £400.
But later on, as we discuss feeding the family, and budgeting, she says: “You get to the point where you lie down in bed and you think ‘Is it going to be OK?’”
Standing outside Downing Street on 13 July 2016, Theresa May directed her first speech as Prime Minister towards the “ordinary working-class families” whom Westminster would soon term the “just about managings”:
“I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”
The facts puncture the rhetoric. May has inherited a toxic combination of a freeze on working-age benefits, and rising inflation due to Brexit. Combined with sluggish wage growth, this effectively means that, unless the government moves fast, ordinary working families’ household income will buy them less and less as the decade wears on.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that, if inflation rises as expected, the value of frozen benefits will fall by 6 per cent by the end of the decade. The Resolution Foundation predicts the poorest households will see their income drop by as much as 15 per cent.
Because many low-paid working families have their income topped up by tax credits, and other in-work benefits, they face a second disruption. Iain Duncan Smith may no longer haunt the front bench, but his signature policy, Universal Credit, continues to be rolled out. The new, streamlined benefit was initially piloted with single jobseekers, but in certain areas it now covers working families as well.
Wonkish critics complain the government is using Universal Credit as a Trojan horse for benefit cuts. But for those who actually receive it, the first shock is often the fact they will not receive it for six weeks. Policymakers say this is to encourage budgeting. In reality, it means some families find themselves surviving on nothing over a period long enough to starve.
Hammersmith and Fulham is on the Universal Credit frontline. Daphine Aikens, the food bank manager, characterises her clients as “just about not managing”. She believes that the disruption as claimants move from one benefit system to another is one of the main reasons her branch has been more in demand this year.
On the day I visit, the foodbank serves 49 people with provisions for 490 meals. This week is already shaping up to be busier than the last.
The more I talk to Laura, the more it becomes clear that, despite the strength of her family, and the hours she and her husband work each week, the nest they have built is fragile, and it doesn’t take much of a financial storm to blow it away.
Laura speaks with a London accent, but her family is originally from Spain. Some years ago, she and her Irish husband decided to move to Barcelona. They thought it would be a better environment to bring up the kids. But the jobs market was difficult, and after five years, they moved back to Fulham in west London.
According to the estate agent Foxtons, the average rent in Fulham ranges from £1,040 to £10,000 a month. Laura and her partner were forced to turn to the council for help with affordable accommodation. They were given a temporary flat, for which they paid rent and council tax, but when they arrived the walls were covered with black mould. They asked to move, and were eventually offered a place outside of the council’s boundaries, in north-west London.
The cost of the move has set the family back hundreds of pounds. It also places them outside the boundaries of Fulham. Not only does this mean the family now lived an hour’s journey from the children’s school and the parents’ workplaces, but they have become rootless in the world of welfare bureaucracy.
There is a Citizens Advice Bureau representative in the foodbank, but she cannot advise Laura on Universal Credit, because she does not live in Fulham. The man dispensing gas and electricity vouchers also struggles. Laura tells me how her new flat has a prepayment meter, which is more expensive than a contract, but difficult for a tenant to change.
At least one thing is simple. The foodbank volunteers disappear with Laura’s bags. They are returned packed to the hilt with cereal, pasta, tinned vegetables and sanitary towels. As Laura gets up to go, she thanks everyone who has helped her, and says she’ll be back: “But just for a cup of tea next time.”
All the same, as I look around the room, at the smartly-dressed mother waiting for food, at her toddler, who sings as he explores the spokes of a wheelchair, something Laura said sticks in my mind.
“It feels like you’re working, working, working,” she told me early on in our conversation. “And there’s nothing back.”