Claiming to be living alone is one of the most common types of benefit fraud – don’t ruin #ValentinesDay by failing to declare your true circumstances https://t.co/tZuNYZ5fer pic.twitter.com/ahutOO6NUy— DWP Press Office (@dwppressoffice) February 13, 2018
And my friends, I took umbrage.
Long ago, in the distant mists of 2012, Tom moved down from Newcastle and in with his parents. He didn't move in with me straight away. We hadn't ever spent more than a week together in one go. We hadn't been together two years. He had just got a job but we didn't know it was going to work out at that early phase. It would have been foolishly optimistic to move straight in together. When you already have two very small children, you do not want the upheaval of a 'new daddy' moving in only to move out a few weeks later when you realise that actually, you can't fucking stand each other.
So, we lived apart. I assiduously tried to find out the cohabiting rules from the DWP, about what counted as living together and what didn't. This was ludicrously difficult information to obtain. You cannot just phone the DWP and ask them because this will arouse suspicion, and provoke scrutiny and you get enough scrutiny on income support as it is. You can find the current rules here. You may notice that they are OBSCURE AS HELL, and there is no more palatable version for the recipients of affected benefits. These rules can be used to define almost any sexual relationship as living together as a married couple, whether the sexual relationship persists, whether or not money is shared, whether abuse is present, whether the relationship is happy. I wouldn't let Tom sleep here more than three nights in seven, I wouldn't let him keep any of his stuff here, I wouldn't let him contribute to any of the household expenses. Even though he categorically was not resident here, I was still terrified that the DWP would decide he was and force that arrangement to become permanent before I was ready, or worse, prosecute me.
When Tom did move in, after a year of this anxious situation, I cancelled my income support the same day. It was the greatest relief.
Here's the thing. There is no room in the DWP's rules to allow you to have a trial run, to make a mistake in relationships and undo it quickly, unless you have considerable external financial and practical support - the sort where your boyfriend can live with his parents without issue, or where you can afford to run two households while you get to know each other. You either declare that you're living together immediately, or you break the law.
It is overwhelmingly single mothers who are prosecuted for breaking this law, as they are claiming the benefit in the first place. Those who are prosecuted are usually in abusive relationships. The partner is not prosecuted. The partner is blameless according to the law.
Single mothers are a great target for abusers. Income support doesn't really give you much money, and usually the shortfall is made up in tax credits when you begin to live together if your income remains low. However, income support automatically entitles you to maximum housing benefit for your house in your area, free school meals for older children, and maximum tax credits as applicable. It is a useful gateway benefit. And it can be held over you by a man who wants to live under your roof for free, abuse you, spend your money, and then threaten you with "If you try and leave, I will shop you to the DWP". This is not recognised or allowed for in DWP rules - they are very clear about an abusive cohabiting relationship still counting as living together as a married couple. Financial abuse is often one of the first signs of an abusive relationship developing, and being on benefits means you are additionally vulnerable to partners exploiting the anxiety and dependence inherent in that way of life.
Since the two child tax credit rule was brought in, there is an additional very real risk of declaring cohabitation too early in a relationship if you have more than two children and have been single since before April 2017. You WILL lose tax credits for any more than the older two. You will NOT get those tax credits back if the relationship fails.
There are some advantages to being on income support. There is reassurance in knowing that you get a certain amount of money at the same time every week or month. There is reassurance in that safety net, particularly when the rest of your life is a mess. You don't get much, and there is almost no financial room for anything to go wrong in this situation. You can't save up for a crisis. But it's more reliable than a zero hours contract, more reliable than hoping someone will swoop in and save you, particularly when someone you loved has let you down. It may be the first time you've ever had to manage your own money, the first time you've truly lived independently.
But in return, you surrender your freedom to run your romantic life as you choose. You surrender your freedom to decide when to make a casual living arrangement permanent. The state decides if you're living as married, according to a set of rules that could apply to almost every single relationship I know; serious or casual, with children or not.
It's a hell of a price to pay for being a single mother.