I'm a single working mum – Universal Credit forced me to go to the food bank

I was told I didn't earn enough. But as someone on a zero-hours contract, I have no choice about the hours I work. 

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I’m a mum with three children, and I work in retail on a zero-hours contract. I’ve been on Universal Credit for 18 months now and it hasn’t got any better.

Last month, I was told I didn’t earn enough, so £400 would be deducted from my Universal Credit payments – I’d earned £16 under the £430 benefit cap. I rang five different people to try and get to the bottom of what had happened, but everyone was saying different things, and no one seemed to know what they were talking about.

One person told me that if I didn’t earn over £430 every month, this would keep happening. The problem is, I don’t know from one week to the next how many hours I have, because of the nature of my contract. Some weeks I’ll get 12 hours a week, others I’ll get 30 or 40 hours a week – I can never predict what hours I’ll have. It felt like they were telling me I might as well quit my job.

I couldn’t sleep all night – I just lay there panicking. I was trying to think, what bills do I have that I can miss paying? The next day I sat down and did some research on what it was, and why it was taken from our payment. I found out that I should be exempt from it, so went into the Jobcentre and spoke to the manager. She was furious at the mistake. They faxed some of my documents over to Universal Credit and then it was sorted, and I got that £400 back. But some people might not know what to do – they might not be able to research what the cap is and get to the bottom of it.

This month I’ve had lower hours – I’ve had to take some time off work because of the stress and pressure of what was happening with Universal Credit last month, and I don’t get sick pay. Because the assessment period for what I get this month is based on my earnings last month, I’ll get a smaller Universal Credit payment this month, just when I need it most. I’ve also been told I can’t get an advance payment because I earned too much for that last month.

We’ve struggled this month because of everything that's happened, and we have had to go to our local Trussell Trust foodbank. I’m working. I shouldn’t need a foodbank when I’m working.

Sometimes they take deductions out of your payment and only tell you on the day you get it. For example, the council can take council tax arrears from your payment, and you only find out on the day you’re paid how much has been deducted. You just can’t plan because you never know what you’re going to get. When I was getting Child Tax Credits and Working Tax Credits it wasn’t like this – I knew how much I’d get in each payment, and I could plan around it, and if there was a shortfall or too much at the end of the year, it was sorted. With this, you feel like you don’t have any security.

I’m in loads of debt, I can’t pay the rent, the housing association are chasing me but I can’t afford to give them anything at the moment. It’s out of control. I can’t plan for anything, which is really hard when you have a family. I’m going to Citizens Advice to get some help on the debts because I feel like I’m constantly worrying, and constantly borrowing.

People say Universal Credit is supposed to put you back in control of your money, but how can you be in control of your money if you don’t know how much money you’ll be getting each month? People say you’re better off if you’re in work, but even though I’m working we’re still suffering with Universal Credit. If the foodbank hadn’t been there, I just don’t know what we would’ve done. I do know one thing though - I should never have needed their help in the first place.

This story was sourced by the Trussell Trust, after the writer was referred to a food bank