“There’s A Stigma”: The Young Women Claiming Universal Credit For The First Time

In April, Britain was experiencing an unseasonable heatwave in the middle of a global pandemic that had plunged most of the country into a state of social and economic cryogenic freeze. Twenty-one-year-old Grace was sitting in a camping chair in the back garden of her rented shared house in Bristol, in her pyjamas, on the phone to the universal credit helpline. Notebook in hand, she was trying to make sense of her situation. 
"I was working in a pub and a music venue in Bristol before lockdown," Grace, who earned £850-900 in a good month before lockdown, tells me while sitting in exactly that same spot. "In March, when everything was forced to close I was furloughed from both jobs. I get 80% from each but that means I’m only getting a few hundred pounds a month which isn’t enough to cover my costs, so I had to apply for universal credit." 
According to new data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) this week, Grace is one of the 1.2 million people who have applied for universal credit for the first time since lockdown. The number of people claiming employment-related benefits is continuing to surge. It hit 2.8 million in May, which was a 125.5% rise since March. 

The number of people claiming employment-related benefits is continuing to surge. It hit 2.8 million in May, which was a 125.5% rise since March. 

source: ons
Like Grace, many of these people dropped off payrolls in March when businesses were forced to close or scale back and furlough staff in the process. According to HMRC’s latest Pay As You Earn Real Time data, there were around 600,000 people in this position in May alone. 
Young women have been particularly badly affected by the economic fallout of COVID-19. Women are more likely to be key workers, but those who haven’t been working are more likely to be facing financial difficulties than other groups. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies found back in April, young women – like Grace – are disproportionately likely to work in restaurants, retail and leisure, which have been worst affected by the lockdown.
"I’ve always been on a very low income," Grace explains, "and I wasn’t in a great financial place before this crisis. Even though I was working a lot, doing full-time hours in one job and part-time hours in the other, meaning I was doing 55/60 hours a week, I wasn’t earning huge amounts.” 

I constantly feel like I'm having to battle to get the support I'm entitled to. You really have to prove yourself in order to get any kind of support and it's just exhausting.

grace, 21
Since being furloughed in late March, Grace says she’s spent a lot of her time on the phone trying to sort out benefits claims – that’s been the recurring theme of her lockdown. Because of the way her hours worked, she was paid a slightly larger amount than usual when she was furloughed, which made her claim more complex. 
"I constantly feel like I’m having to battle to get the support I’m entitled to. You really have to prove yourself in order to get any kind of support and it’s just..." she pauses on the phone to me, "exhausting."
Similarly, 30-year-old Aime from Banbury in Oxfordshire was furloughed from her job as a kitchen designer in April. She remembers the moment she was told by her manager: it was in a WhatsApp group chat with her entire team. 
"They just said, 'You’re going to be furloughed, we’ll send a letter in the post so you know more about it'," she tells me. "And that was it! I was shocked. You have all these things going around in your mind – how long will I be furloughed for? Will I be able to pay my rent? It was really hard. I sought comfort and advice from friends but it was hard because so many people are just as worried about their own finances." 
Like Grace, Aime wasn’t earning a huge amount before the coronavirus crisis because her job works on commission. She estimates that her annual income was around £13,000. 

It's hard. There is still a stigma surrounding being on benefits.

aime, 30
"It’s hard," Aime reflects, "there is still a stigma surrounding being on benefits. I was talking to somebody just the other day who was saying, 'I’ve been at work all day and I’m knackered and there are some people that are just sat on their bottoms doing nothing'. I was like, 'Well I’m claiming benefits at the minute!' It’s hard to receive that sort of attitude from people."
Joe Levenson, director of communications and campaigns at the Young Women’s Trust told Refinery29 that they are incredibly concerned about the situation. 
"Young women were struggling before this crisis began and being forced to rely on universal credit to survive has long been an everyday reality for thousands of them," he explained. "Working on inadequate zero hours contracts or on very low pay means often it is their last resort and the pandemic has only made things worse."
"There is a new wave of young women having to access universal credit for the first time and with it the long wait to receive support and associated anxiety," he added. "We’re concerned that as the government's support to employers falls away in the autumn, even more women could be left in need of universal credit. That's why there needs to be a much greater focus from the government on ensuring that the universal credit system provides timely security for those who need it, alongside investment in enabling those who lose their jobs to access employment."
The World Health Organization says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.

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