By VIEW editor Brian Pelan
One of the difficulties about producing an issue of VIEW which examines the Cost of Living crisis is getting people who have direct lived experience to share their story with a wider audience.
Single mother Caroline Rice who lives in Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh with her daughter is one of the exceptions. She believes it’s vital to speak out.
Given that austerity has been with us for a number of years I asked Caroline how she would describe the impact of the current Cost of Living crisis.
“It’s definitely got worse,” she replied. “I’ve noticed that my finances are getting tighter and tighter. I used to be able to save a number of years ago, but not now. There is no cushion any more.”
Caroline, who works as a classroom assistant, added: “My wages go out as quickly as they come in. Also, my pay is not stable as I don’t get paid when I’m not working. As classroom assistants, we are hired on 39-week contracts. Very few get offered a full 52-week contract. This means we don’t get paid for 13 weeks of the year. Nine weeks of this is over the summer holidays.
“So if you are married, you’re relying on your partner’s wages. If you are single, you are likely to have to sign on to universal credit (UC) or if you are already on it you learn to live with no income for at least six weeks.
“I get a basic UC of around £900 and that includes my rent. I get a full wage in July from my June work, which means my UC award in August is very low and barely covers my rent, meaning I have no income in August to live on. When I go back to work in September, I get my UC of £900 but I am spending much of what should be spent on our household on getting myself to work daily.
“I receive a wage on July 15 and I don’t get another wage until October 15. Many classroom assistants find that they are not eligible for free school meals for their children because of the July wages.”
Caroline tells of her relief that she has a stove given the high cost for energy provision. “But the coal has gone from £8.50 a bag to £15 a bag,” she added.
‘If we all kept quiet and said nothing, then they’ll just keep on doing it. They’ll keep squeezing you a bit more and more’
She suffers from fibromyalgia – a condition which can leave her feeling exhausted. Caroline now struggles at times to carry out basic home improvements.
“What I really want is to do a day’s work and get properly paid for it,” she said. “My state benefits don’t make up for what I lose out on wages.”
Caroline said that because she is living in a rural area she would find it difficult to confide in other people living near her. “Most people here keep things to themselves. There is no real sharing of economic struggle.”
She doesn’t believe in keeping quiet though and has been a frequent contributor on news programmes.
“If we all kept quiet and said nothing, then they’ll just keep on doing it. They’ll keep squeezing you a bit more and more,” said Caroline.
“I go onto the radio to create a bit more awareness and to try and break the stigma and shaming of people. I’ve heard some people say that the bookies and the pubs will be full when the promised £600 energy aid is paid out. These people are automatically targeting low-paid workers. I believe that we should not attack those on lower wages.”
I asked Caroline did she have any views on the political response to what we’re going through such as those demanding that the Northern Ireland Executive is set up again to help combat the crisis.
“I believe that the political parties here have failed people for years and years. I believe that even if the Executive is set up again, it will fall again. It is just not stable.
“The reality is that people should not have to live like this. We’re constantly being pitted against each other by the rich and the politicians. We’re told that many children are not entitled to free school meals yet the politicians can get subsidised meals.”
One thing is certain, Caroline will definitely continue to call out injustice wherever she sees it. I left her standing at her front gate with a determined look on her face.