Photo by Victor Koldunov / Adobe Stock
“I want my kids eating well, and I want them dressed appropriately, that they at least have a school uniform. If we’re actually going to be happier with me in the benefits system, then why not? Why push poverty on my family unnecessarily?”
Amy*, a newly qualified social worker, has been contemplating switching to agency work or going on benefits to provide for their family in the midst of rising costs.
The mother of three, the main earner in their family, with their partner earning half as much as them, previously had to borrow money from their parents to travel for work. To avoid that, they are now £1,200 in debt, using a credit card to cover travel costs, as most of their salary goes on childcare, rent and essentials for the children.
Inadequate mileage allowance
Amy was among the 90% of shareholder Community Care’s cost of living survey to say that their mileage allowance did not cover the cost of oil used during working hours.
In Amy’s case, working for a large county council in England, many of their weekly visits, which often number more than 10, involve driving long distances.
“Just getting to the office alone in a week is usually a tank and a half – that’s £60 to £110,” they say.
From September’s pay, after bills, Amy had to take out an extra £400 for fuel, leaving them with £9 in their bank account and three weeks to go until the next payday.
Struggles with childcare costs
Alongside providing for their two older children, Amy previously had to spend £1,000 to £1,300 a month for their son’s childcare, before he turned three, and the family became eligible for 30 hours’ free childcare a week, last year.
However, this scheme only covers term time, and so they had to pay full fees during the summer.
And the saving has not stopped the family being in debt, because of rising costs elsewhere.
“It’s like that money I got back from childcare, I’ve lost again just to find the bare essentials,” they say.
I get into the end of the second week after being paid and I don’t have any money.”
“And we’re not silly with money, right? We have an Excel spreadsheet [for our expenses]”
The financial strain means Amy and their partner have had to seek help from friends and family. Their mother had to buy their daughter a jumper after she started school wearing one that was small on the wrists and struggled to close.
Amy has also had to make their own share of sacrifices. To afford new shoes for their children this month, they were left wearing a pair with holes.
More on how the cost of living crisis is hitting social workers
“I just don’t have the basics of what they need,” they say. “My two older ones [aged 10 and 14] share a room because we can’t afford to move. I tried to get a room divider built so they get their own personal space.
It’s only 100 quid, but I can’t afford it. And I just think that’s absolutely ridiculous. I’m a specialist, I work full-time.”
To deal with the high cost of energy, the family will not be switching on heating until at least November, and they are still unsure whether they will have it on over Christmas. The result, according to Amy, is parental guilt.
“The way my processing works is, I take that on and I feel like I’ve failed as a parent. I took so much time from my daughter to get my education, but even with the long hours that I work, I can’t afford to take them to the beach.”
Worsening mental health
These feelings have affected Amy’s eating disorder, exacerbating self-harming behaviors, such as bingeing.
“When I feel really down or like I haven’t been a good mum, I would then be like, ‘you don’t deserve to be healthy and be looked after’, so I binge junk food.”
They also cannot afford to be healthy. The leftover money is used to ensure the children eat healthily meal while Amy has to settle for cheap fast food.
“If I had access to healthier food, my brain fog maybe wouldn’t be as much, I’d have more energy, and might rationalise better.”
They also mask at work so colleagues don’t realize their struggle.
“It just makes me incredibly tired over the weekend because I’ve got to come down from hiding that feeling,” they say. “And then I have to give my kids what they need, in a way that they need, and make time for my partner.”
It’s incredibly demanding. I’m absolutely exhausted this week.”
Lack of employer support
Amy was among 94% of survey to report that their employer wasn’t taking any steps to mitigate the impact of the cost living crisis.
The focus in Amy’s authority has been on emotional, not financial, support.
“We’ve had a couple of conversations, just acknowledging how difficult things have been for us,” they say.
“[That] if we feel that we’re struggling [we should] let our managers know. But in terms of financial support, there have been no discussions, we’ve just been encouraged to write good evidence-based reflections so we can apply for a share rise.”
In September, they got a pay rise of just under £200, but with that money used to pay down debt, they say it hasn’t made much difference.
One reason may have said their employers had not mitigated the impact of the crisis on them is that most would not have had a cost of living share rise this year.
Real-terms pay cuts
Last week, unions agreed to a pay rise of £1,925 – or 5% – for council staff in Scotland, which should enter pay packets shortly. A similar deal is likely to go through in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with members of the biggest union, UNISON, already having given their assets.
The offers are the biggest in many years from council employers. However, with inflation running at 9.9%, they constitute a significant real-terms pay cut.
Amy was over a third of survey (35%) to call for more than 10%. They call for employers to provide “decent pay that actually addresses issues”.
“[The current situation] is putting unattainable expectations on social workers to preserve [quality]when it’s not sustainable,” they add.
We have emotions, we have needs, and you need a healthy workforce.”
She adds: “We’re being pushed quicker to burn out. I can’t even buy nutritional food for my family – this is not investing in quality social workers.”
*Not their real name