Tears flow easily as Gemma Carlsson counts the last of this week’s cash. It’s nearing the end of the month, so she’s down to a bunch of loose change.
“This isn’t where I want to be,” she whispers. “I hate it. It feels like I’m getting depressed just for being here. It’s humid, it’s falling apart. The kids hate it too.”
She’s sitting in a room with damp walls, an ancient TV that only plays children’s channels, and the telltale smell of rat droppings wafting from the sparse furniture in the kitchen beyond.
The home of 38-year-old Gemma and her children, aged 20, 15 and 10, is a three-bedroom community house on the Grove Hill estate in Middlesbrough. The family has lived there for 12 years – always in abject poverty.
Gemma’s deprivation is what experts are calling “work poverty” in Britain’s worst unemployment crisis
She earns £456 a month and receives £665 in Universal Credit.
But the cost of living crisis means her monthly grocery bill of £400 – including £3 tote bags of essentials from the local food bank – and her £260 energy bill will increase.
Gemma has about £100 left over until she pays all her bills, meaning she can afford to shop at large supermarkets and relies on charity shops to clothe her children.
Her case is typical of so many families in the UK struggling to make ends meet despite working.
Gemma manages the collection and distribution of clothing, food and bric a brac for the local Genesis project at St Oswald’s Church.
On Wednesdays she helps care for the newborns and toddlers at the attached St Chad’s Church just up the road – changing nappies, preparing food, entertaining them with a variety of arts and crafts.
Other days are dedicated to looking after six to ten year olds or looking after young people in the local youth club. She’s a quiet, reclusive woman at the best of times, so being around the kids helps bring her out.
The Genesis Project is funded by donations and can only afford 12 hours a week, although she does at least 30 other volunteers. “I like to help people, and besides, I would be bored or depressed if I went home,” she explains.
If Gemma is lucky she might get £50-£25 school holiday vouchers for each of the two youngest.
The local authority pays her rent and leaves Gemma to juggle electricity, gas, grocery and clothing bills. When she has it, she pays £30 each for the gas and electricity meters. When it runs out, she calls an emergency number – the only “perk” of having a daughter who suffers from asthma.
Gemma fears further price increases. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she says. “Especially when it gets cold again.”
Thursdays are always busy at work. It’s also food distribution day at the Genesis Project. For £3 she can help herself to 10 items – everything from canned goods, juice, biscuits, bread, lactose, cereal, ham, pasta, rice.
Rev Kath Dean, deacon at St Oswald and St Chad, has no doubt about the extent of Gemma’s suffering. “Without the food we provide for her, she would not survive. As simple as that.”
Kath is very impressed with Gemma’s work ethic and chimes in with a packed lunch as often as possible. “She has three very hungry children,” she says. “I won’t see her go without.”
The Cleric also helps maintain family dignity by sending her toilet roll home when supplies run low. Just staying clean is a struggle for many families in a community largely riddled with poverty. The stigma that comes with it is pervasive.
Amanda Bailey, director of the North East Child Poverty Commission, is painfully aware of families like Gemma and their children.
“There’s practically no financial buffer for them,” she says. “They’re told to cut back, but the reality is they can’t cut anything.”
Middlesbrough is already experiencing the worst jobs crisis in the UK and the future looks even bleaker as summer approaches.
Bailey argues that the government’s £500million budget support fund is a drop in the bucket given the scale of the problem.
“That £500m is for the whole of Britain and it’s just not enough. The government has big ambitions for moving up and they say we will have longer life expectancies and more children. But how the hell is that supposed to happen when people literally can’t afford to eat?
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“The discussion of leveling in a place like Middlesbrough is a universe away from what’s actually happening locally.
“The real value of Social Security support has fallen massively because if you’re either unemployed or in a very low-paying job, cuts are going to affect you more.
“The fact that Social Security was up just 3.1 percent last month while inflation was 10 percent creates a big problem.”
A rise in in-work poverty over the past decade meant the poor entered the pandemic with virtually no financial cushion. “That means they have nothing to fall back on in this new livelihood crisis.”
She continued: “The failure to increase benefits around the level of inflation has effectively lost £11million in value. And it’s not getting better anytime soon, is it?
“The money is discretionary and allocated by local authorities, so now they have the task of not so much deciding who gets help from the fund and who doesn’t.
“There is now a kind of ‘go, municipalities, you can decide which people you help, because the sums of money offered are far from enough.
“The government keeps saying they are trying to help people with the cost of basic necessities, the cost of basic necessities. And I think: Isn’t it the function of the national social security system to help people with that? If it doesn’t work then I’m not sure what the point is.
“We know from the pandemic what impact poverty has on health. Certainly one should have learned from it, but instead we will always make it worse.”
https://www.mirror.co.uk/money/mums-fight-survival-cost-living-27028910 Mom's struggle to survive as the cost of living crisis leaves the family unable to make ends meet