“It destroyed every ounce of life that I had”: how Universal Credit is pushing people to beg for money online

Benefit reform may force more and more people to use crowdfunding sites in order to make ends meet.

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At present, there are nearly 50 people on the crowdfunding website GoFundMe who have used the words “Universal Credit” in their plea. These benefits claimants are asking for money to help them through difficult times caused by the flaws in the Universal Credit (UC) system, which is currently being rolled out across the country. The controversial new benefit sees claimants waiting up to six weeks for their first payment, causing many to turn to foodbanks – and now crowdfunding websites – to get by.

“It just felt hugely degrading,” says Heather, a 40-year-old single mother who claims UC and set up a GoFundMe page. “It was just somehow easier to put it on the internet and ask strangers to help me than it was to ask anybody that I knew.”

GoFundMe is just one of many crowdfunding websites which allow people to raise money for personal causes. The fact individuals have been forced to use these sites to afford health care or funeral costs is often considered “dystopian”, an opinion that will probably become more widespread if UC pleas continue to increase as the benefit is rolled out.  

“They have never got a payment right yet,” writes one woman on her funding page titled “Homeless with 2 children”. Another writes: “Myself and my young daughter are facing eviction.” On another website, JustGiving, a man says a “mix-up” with UC means he has been left without food or money for three weeks. On CrowdFunder, yet another site, people are trying to raise money on behalf of a woman who appeared on BBC News talking about the eight month delay in her first UC payment.

“It’s really embarrassing to have to ask for help. I’m really quite a proud person and you know, I don’t like to ask for help,” says Heather, who set up her crowdfunding page after her UC payments were sanctioned for two months.  

Heather first claimed UC in September 2016, after she left a job as a receptionist due to developing a condition that means her legs easily fracture. In the six weeks she had to wait for her money, two rent payments were due. “By the time I got my first payment which was just over £1,000, I already was £1,200 in debt,” she says, explaining that her landlord allowed her to delay paying rent until the money arrived. “Then February happened and it was just a massive disaster.

“You know when everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong,” she sobs.

In February 2017, Heather’s home had a power cut. As her severely asthmatic nine-year-old son requires a plugged-in nebuliser to help his breathing, Heather called an ambulance. “By 10pm my baby was sedated and being treated intravenously in intensive care,” Heather wrote on her crowdfunding page. As she was with her son in the hospital, she then missed her Jobcentre appointment. In response, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) sanctioned her, meaning she received no UC for two months. Her landlord, unable to cover his own mortgage payments, asked her to move out.

“I had letters from the hospital saying that I was there, but [the DWP] just weren’t listening,” says Heather. “The people at the Jobcentre were very sympathetic but they couldn’t do anything because you have to speak to people at Universal Credit, and the people at the Universal Credit helpline were saying that they were very sorry but because I’d missed the appointment, I couldn’t do anything… I tried everything that I possibly could to get them to change their mind.”

The charity Citizens Advice recently warned that UC can cause families to “spiral” into debt, something that then happened to Heather.

“This cycle has started where I’m having to get payday loans to pay back the money [to my old landlord] and it’s just horrible, it’s really, really horrible.” Heather blames the initial six-week wait for her situation. “I’ve not been at a point where I’ve been able to stop the effects of that happening,” she says. “A combination of those first six weeks and then the sanction a few months later...  it completely broke me, it just destroyed every ounce of life that I had.”

It was one of the nurses at the hospital who suggested Heather turn to crowdfunding. Many UC claimants who use these sites appear to see them as a last resort. “I just didn’t know what else to do,” writes a man who crowdfunded after problems with the UC helpline (which can cost up to 55p a minute). Yet despite this desperation, many of these crowdfunders have raised nothing, with many others raising between just £5 and £12.

“It’s horrible because it just feels like people think you’re really lazy or that you’re not working because you can’t be bothered,” explains Heather, when I ask how it felt to raise no money on GoFundMe. “It’s so far from the truth, I've started an Open University course so that I can get a better job and get myself out of this situation.”

In 1834, a new poor law was implemented. This act entrenched the notions of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor into law, with many able-bodied people considered lazy and unworthy of help. In 2011, the Archbishop of Canterbury warned that this language was returning, and it’s easy to see how crowdfunding can be damaging in this way. In order to “earn” the money they ask for, UC claimants have to present a sob story that rids them of any vice, and sanitises the complex realities of existence.

Heather’s story is more complex than a paragraph on a crowdfunding site allows. The pain medication she takes for her legs means she feels like “a drug addict”, and she sometimes keeps her son off school because of embarrassment about her situation. “I’ve had to keep him off school because I can only give him cereal for lunch but I can’t send him into school with a bowl of cereal,” she says, crying.

“I know that so many people say that,‘Yeah these parents can afford mobile phones’,” she goes on. “I do have a mobile phone and it’s not hugely expensive but without that if something was to happen to your child, I need to be able to contact help…”

Placing her plea online exposes Heather to these kinds of criticisms, and further entrenches the archaic and wrongheaded idea that some people are more deserving of help than others.

David Finch, a senior economic analyst at the think tank Resolution Foundation, says of the trend:

“People turning to crowdfunding sites while they wait for their UC payments to arrive shows that they are struggling to cope with a six-week wait, and calls into question whether the advance payments system is working properly. 

“Universal Credit has the potential to be a transformative welfare reform but critical design faults are undermining it and causing real hardship.  The six-week wait for UC payments is just one of many problems that need repairing before millions of people are moved onto the new system.” 

As UC continues to be rolled out across the country, it seems likely that more and more claimants will turn to crowdfunding. Like many, Heather is calling for the rollout to stop.

“I have no doubt at all that welfare needs to be reformed, but this is not welfare reform,” she says. “It’s going to really hurt people.” 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh