Natalie Collins was assaulted by her husband almost ten years ago, while she was pregnant with her second child. Escaping the violence of her partner, she found herself dependent on benefits as a young single mother of a very ill premature baby. This is Natalie’s moving story of the reality of being on benefits, and the difference that the welfare cuts make:
Nearly ten years ago when my son was born three months premature, the last thing on my mind was money. My two-year-old daughter and I lived with him on hospital wards around the north of England for five months. According to hospital policy my daughter shouldn’t have been fed by the hospital because she wasn’t a patient, but the hospitals were kind enough to bend the rules so my daughter could be provided with food. I was only fed by the hospital because I was breastfeeding. I used to joke that my son would be breastfed until he left hospital, even if that meant I had to breastfeed him until he was fifteen.
For many parents of sick children, the cost of having a sick baby is astronomical. Travel to and from the hospital (often in taxis if parents don’t drive). Parking costs. Food in a hospital cafeteria that is much more expensive than a regular weekly food budget.
We were quite blessed (if that’s the right word to describe any aspect of living in a hospital with a sick baby). The hospital was fifty miles from our hometown, which meant we were able to stay in the hospital, negating the need for travel costs or parking charges. My daughter was only a toddler, so not in fulltime education. Other parents with older children were travelling 100 miles, visiting their baby for weekends as they had older children who in primary school.
Still, entertaining a toddler in a hospital involves spending money on magazines, ice creams and sweets. I spoke to a mother this week whose child was been rushed to hospital quite a few years ago. She spent six weeks with her child in hospital; discovering after her child had been discharged that she was overdrawn. She recalled being distraught in the bank as they refused to accept her circumstances as “bad enough” to reverse the bank charges accrued.
Eventually my son was released from hospital on low-flow oxygen. Sometimes he would get ill, not ill enough to need an ambulance, but ill enough to need to be in hospital. I couldn’t drive, so would debate whether I could afford a taxi, inevitably choosing to be safe not sorry, though having to pay money I didn’t have.
I was a single parent. My ex-husband had assaulted me, leading the premature birth of my son. I had to navigate applying for income support, re-organising my finances and living in a hospital. Thankfully a worker helped me complete the forms to apply for Disability Living Allowance (DLA). My son was given high rate DLA; apparently a baby who regularly almost dies meant he was entitled to the highest amount of financial support. It was about £120 per week.
I survived living on benefits by not having a television or Internet. I had a pay-as-you-go mobile and used cash for everything, separating the notes into envelopes weekly. Although paying by direct debit would have been cheaper, I couldn’t risk going overdrawn. Even though pre-paid gas and electricity was more expensive, I couldn’t risk having any unknown expenses. I was grateful for milk and vegetables tokens, and housing benefit meant I could just about scrape by.
I walked or took the bus, traipsing around with a canister of oxygen under my son’s pram, a buggy board on the back for my small daughter to ride on. When my son needed hospital treatment, I was so thankful for DLA. It took some of the pressure off, at least financially.
I didn’t have holidays. I didn’t buy clothes or have money for coffees or lunches out. Every penny was accounted for. We lived in a three bedroom flat in Gateshead, a blessing for my daughter to have her own bedroom in a world with little other security. We made full use of every free activity available to us; museums, art galleries and that extinct place of distant memory, the Surestart centre.
We survived financially and thrived emotionally, our little family. My ex-husband had always spent all the money and behaved in financially abusive ways; to have money under my control felt so liberating. No matter that it was such a small amount.
I was able to access Legal Aid to divorce my ex-husband and to prevent him gaining access to my precious children through the family courts. My son is now nine years old. He is happy, healthy and filled with life. We have been safe and well as a family for over 7 years, with my new husband joining us along the way.
If my life had happened a decade later, this would not have been my story.
Every application for benefits would have been a trauma. Every hospital stay a potential benefits sanction waiting to happen. The delay in benefits would have resulted in me having to access food banks; an experience that can feel deeply shameful, no matter how legitimate the reason
The estate agent I let my flat through would have been unlikely to offer me a property. A decade ago, a tenant could choose to have their housing benefit paid directly to the landlord, giving confidence that the money would definitely be paid. Now that is no longer a choice for housing benefits recipients. And when there’s no money, the rent will be spent on food to prevent the children going hungry.
We would probably have been placed in a hostel or bed and breakfast accommodation, with no kitchen facilities. With no way of cooking, I could not have budgeted sensibly, having to eat out or order takeaways. I would have had to wait for a house to appear on the housing list. Perhaps this situation would have exacerbated my son’s existing serious health conditions…
If, by some miracle, I had managed to get a privately rented flat, I would be charged bedroom tax for the third bedroom I had. My daughter, whose whole life had been upended by abuse would have had no place of her own, expected to share a bedroom with a small screaming creature who kept nearly dying and upending her life all over again.
That sense of control of my money would have been fleeting and insecure as sanctions and arbitrary decisions left me powerless yet again.
There would be no legal aid to divorce my ex-husband. Mediation would be insisted on, leaving me at risk of re-entering the relationship with my ex-husband due to his abusive tactics and the trauma bonding and PTSD he had caused me.
Child contact proceedings would have been enacted between us. Without legal aid we would have to argue it out in court without legal representation, just he and I, no doubt further abused by him in the process.
My story ends positively, in part, because the state cared for me when my children and I were at our most vulnerable. I am now a freelance consultant, working nationally to end violence against women.
I have trained 250 practitioners who deliver youth education about domestic abuse nationally, preventing domestic abuse. I have spoken to thousands of people across the UK and internationally about abuse and exploitation, equipping them to respond differently to abuse. My children are happy and well-adjusted. They are learning and growing and well on their way to become positive contributors to society.
We are the legacy of a government not intent on cutting benefits and hurting the most vulnerable; of a state and media not determined to set the poor against one another. We are not the traditional “wealth creation” valued by selfish capitalism. We are not those who sit at desks and make profits by gambling stocks and shares; getting paid obscene amounts to click, tap and win. We are not those who are the actual culprits of the global financial crisis.
But what will the legacy of this government be? Real-life hunger games for the poor and disabled people dying while signed up as capable of work. Women forced to stay married to abusive men, and children sick in hospital.
My children and I are the real wealth creators. We stand alongside the many mothers and children overcoming male violence, illness and poverty. Alongside the women and men who were given support by the state when their lives were in tatters; the children invested in by Surestart centres now living healthy, positive lives, we are the wealth creators.
Natalie Collins is a Gender Justice Specialist. She works to enable individuals and organisations to prevent and respond to male violence against women. She speaks and writes on understanding and ending gender injustice nationally and internationally. You can connect with her further on twitter @natweetalie or via www.nataliecollins.info.
“I didn’t have holidays. I didn’t buy clothes” @Natweetalie for compassionatebritain – The Benefit of Benefits:
“My son was given high rate DLA” NEW post by @Natweetalie for compassionatebritain – The Benefit of Benefits
“If my life had happened a decade later, this would not have been my story.” @Natweetalie for compassionatebritain:
“My ex-husband had assaulted me, leading the premature birth of my son.” @Natweetalie for compassionatebritain:
Compassionate Britain unites Christians and others who want to speak up to protect benefits for sick and disabled people. Sign up for occasional updates about our campaign.