After his recent changes to unemployment benefit, Work and Pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith made the bold and/or hilarious claim that he could live on £53 a week. He was ridiculed – and rightly so – for seemingly ignoring the fact that £53 has to pay for bills and transport, not just for dinner and a couple of Methusalas of Dom Perignon, leaving only a couple of pounds a day for food.
So naturally the press got involved, with the BBC and the Daily Mail both publishing articles about how it was possible to live on a pound a day. However, both reached dubious conclusions, as they seemed to assume that all benefits recipients had jars of coriander in the cupboard and enough money to buy in bulk. So I decided to try the test out for myself – driven partly journalistic curiosity, and partly by economic necessity. My food for the week came to a grand total of five pounds and four measly pennies (all items were supermarket ‘basics’ brand): 2 cartons of chopped tomatoes (62p); two large onions (34p) and one large red onion (18p); 24 ‘whole-wheat biscuits’ (94p); 1 KG long grain rice (£1.39 – not basics); tin of kidney beans (34p, damaged tin); milk chocolate (34p); 1 loose courgette (24p); 1L UHT milk (53p); 1 banana (12p). The only ‘out of the cupboard’ item I allowed myself was a small amount of cooking oil for frying.
Day 1 – Ah, the ascetic life! Does anything beat waking up to a bowl of something called ‘whole-wheat biscuits’ bathing a pathetic puddle of skimmed milk? Well, yes, a lot of things could beat that. Like lobster, probably, or cheese, or sirloin steak… Anyway, my budget doesn’t permit me to dream, and I spend the day eating breakfast over and over. Rice is on the table for tea, because I don’t have time to make anything else after spending all day in the library. Delicious!
Day 2 – It’s only day 2 and I am already tired of my skimmed milk. Skimmed milk is not milk. It’s just water that’s lying about being milk. Still, it’s all I’ve got, so I splash it on the cereal and go to work. After a repeat of breakfast for dinner, I decide to make something vaguely exciting for tea, though it’s not helped by the fact that my cooking abilities go no further than throwing all sorts of shit in a frying pan. I fry half an onion and half the courgette, slop in about two thirds of the contents of a chopped tomato carton, and add a few kidney beans, then pour it over the top of some rice. It doesn’t taste bad, but since I’m saving this stuff for the rest of the week, I still I go to bed with my stomach rumbling.
Day 3 – The day begins with some real verve – I slice the forgotten banana over the top of my cereal, improving its taste by about 4%. Otherwise, the day passes in a very similar way to the previous two. However, I am beginning to feel the effects of this fasting – I am constantly tired, constantly hungry and constantly grumpy. I watch Game of Thrones and eat rice and left over sauce from last night, which tastes better when I start to imagine that I’m only eating so badly because I’m in a wildling camp north of The Wall, and can’t afford to waste our rations. No wonder Jon Snow is so fucking miserable all the time.
Day 4 – I’d usually describe the sensation I’m feeling right now as ‘hunger’. But it feels a bit more significant than that. I’ve gone beyond ‘hunger’, and now my stomach is in the midst of a full blown philosophical crisis. I can hear it beginning to doubt whether or not it has a purpose in life. It denies its own existence. I can only appease it with cereal, which is rapidly running out, along with the rest of the ‘milk’. I use the rest of my vegetables to make another sauce and eat it with rice, although I am tempted to pour it on my wheat biscuits, you know, to mix things up a bit.
Day 5 – With my milk supplies exhausted, I decide to pass up on the opportunity to eat bone-dry wheat dust for breakfast. By this point in the week, though, food no longer seems so important. There’s a far bigger problem – I haven’t had coffee for over four days, and I’m about to go to a two hour seminar about how to use census data. I head into the LUSU bunker kitchen and whip up a quick pre-seminar latte – only to realise upon tasting that the milk has been lounging in the fridge over Roses weekend, and turned itself into something resembling an award-winning vintage camembert. I promptly wash out my mouth and go without food until teatime, and then gorge myself on the rest of my rice and sauce, and eat the entire bar of chocolate as a sort of prize.
A horrible five days, all in all, but an illuminating one, too, as it proved to me that it is utterly impossible to live on five pounds a week in the UK. My performance at work and at University was adversely affected by my constant, hunger induced lethargy, and if I didn’t already have a job I certainly wouldn’t feel up to getting one. Benefit payments are meant to help people get back into work – but how are they going to do that when a person has to skip breakfast in order to afford the bus far to the job centre? Perhaps the biggest realisation is that I have spent more on food for my cats over the course of the week than I have on myself. What sort of benefits system is it that leaves people with less food than animals? It’s time for a re-think, IDS.