Charlotte, a domestic abuse survivor and anti-poverty campaigner, talks about the impact of national policies on the lives of people in poverty.
Charlotte is in her forties and has four children. “I was born and bred in Ashton”, she says, “my Dad was an engineer, he worked at a factory in Oldham, and Mum stayed at home to look after us. When Thatcher got elected, Dad’s factory got shut down, and he had to go and sign on at the Labour exchange on Scotland Street. I remember the queues were massive. When Dad lost his job, it put the family into poverty. We had holes in our shoes, and the family couldn’t afford much. They hid a lot of it from us as kids. But it wasn’t as bad as now. At least then we had a sense community.”
Charlotte became a nursery nurse and started a family in her 20s. “But it was such a bad relationship. He was violent, beat me up. I spent over a year in a woman’s refuge, and then was moved several times, because he kept finding me. He started taking drugs after we met, and it sent him crazy. He nearly killed me twice. I met another man later on, and he became violent too when I got pregnant. I had to go back to women’s shelters, taking my family with me. It was a nightmare. There were no staff on at night, and people were shrieking, and hitting others. We had to lock ourselves in the room, the children were crying. I couldn’t work at this time, what with everything I was going through and two young babies”, says Charlotte. “Tony Blair brought in child tax credits, which was great, I could provide for my young babies. Life wasn’t a struggle then. I knew I wouldn’t have to look for work until my children were older, too.”
But things got worse for Charlotte with changes to the benefit system. “Governments slowly took that safety net away, little tweaks. The first thing they touched was us single parents. The money went down slowly, we had less and less each week. It’s horrendous now. Poverty is being deprived of the basics other people take for granted. Putting your heating on. Buying clothes. I eat once a day – I skip my meals to feed the kids. When my youngest daughter is not at home, the heating doesn’t go on, I can’t afford it.” Charlotte has £80 a week after she’s paid her rent, much of which is needed to cover bills.
Charlotte feels especially strongly about benefit sanctions. “There should not be punishment, there should be guidance. In the old days you were given lots of chances, guidance and courses. You weren’t sanctioned unless you just went in and said ‘I’ve done nothing’. It was a very last resort, they would try everything with you before that. Now, if your face fits, they will try it on. It’s not a last resort any more, it’s a first resort. People don’t often get the sanction letter. Your money just stops and people can’t cope and just end it – we know people who have come out of the job centre and committed suicide.”
Charlotte sees these issues all around her community in Ashton, and spends a lot of her time supporting people who suffer as a result. She writes a blog, “the Poor Side of Life”, and organises a weekly protest outside Ashton Jobcentre, challenging sanctions, and informing people of their rights – so they can empower themselves, to prevent sanctions, or if they do get a sanction, to know what to do afterwards. “People think you’re loaded when you do the stuff I do. People ask me for money. But I’m in the same position as them.”
Interview carried out by Peter Cruickshank for Greater Manchester Poverty Action’s Beyond Poverty report