Faced with cuts to her universal credit and crippling bills, in September last year Amy Cook, 27, decided to do something she had never done before to help her family: she set up a crowdfunding campaign to help alleviate their financial situation.
Cook, a full-time carer to her partner, Jordan, 37, who has learning difficulties, set a £2,000 goal on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe. On her profile she explained to potential donors that the family had “hit a brick wall” with a bedbug infestation followed by cuts to their universal credit, adding that it would be “10 times harder to survive let alone live”.
Cook, who lives in Deptford, London, explained that the couple had depleted their “rainy day fund” and needed a “helping hand to get back to an acceptable standard of living”.
This included carpeting the home as Jordan has grand mal epilepsy, which causes him to have fits, and they were concerned that the seizures could lead to a serious head injury.
“We have no funds to live off,” says Cook, who has a daughter aged eight. “We approached the council and housing association but there was no support anywhere … The minute the money is there it’s gone; you’re always a month behind on your bills. You pay one bill then another comes straight in. There’s not enough support for people in poverty.”
She turned to GoFundMe as a last resort. “I was nervous as I’m not a person to ask strangers for help but what else can I do? The government isn’t doing anything.” The couple reached their goal, allowing them to resolve the bed bug situation, buy a new chest of drawers, washing machine and other essential items.
Research for the Guardian by GoFundMe found a 28% rise in the number of appeals mentioning universal credit appearing on the platform between July 2021 and January 2022 compared with the pre-pandemic period of July 2019 to January 2020.
The appeals come against a backdrop of rising prices for essentials such as gas and food, and after cuts in benefits, including last autumn’s removal of the £20 universal credit uplift.
John Coventry, the senior international director at GoFundMe, says the trend of people turning to crowdfunding for help with everyday living costs is not surprising as the website “generally holds up a mirror to society – so whatever issues people face we’ll see that reflected in the activity on the platform”.
He adds: “It will be a tough winter for many people and as such we would expect more fundraisers for basic household needs. Some of the stories are heartbreaking but the power it gives people when communities rally around to help is truly inspiring.
“There are some incredible stories of kindness playing out every single day all over the world and that, in turn, makes people more confident to ask for the help they need.”
Jackie*, 27, lives in Yorkshire and launched a successful crowdfunding appeal last autumn to raise £1,000 to help her pay for rent and food.
“I turned to GoFundMe because the amount from universal credit is so little,” she says. “The stress and anxiety of not knowing each month what I will be able to cover for bills and so on is just crazy. Having the GoFundMe is embarrassing and I feel ashamed to ask people to share it but I didn’t know what else I could do.”
Jackie is far from the only one turning to crowdfunding platforms to survive. Rob Rider Hill, a former chef and musician, 40, set up a campaign to raise £350 to help cover costs to repair his broken iPhone and laptop screens.
Rider Hill, who has long Covid, is unable to return to work as a chef and is taking on small ad hoc admin projects for friends. He is reliant on the £644 a month he receives in universal credit, out of which he pays £370 in rent. He describes the process of organising and receiving universal credit as a “nightmare”, adding “it’s been the most stressful part of the last year and a half”.
Dependent on friends, food banks and the local community cafe, when his laptop screen broke and he couldn’t afford to fix it he wanted to try a different way to raise funds.
“Basically, 90% of my world is my laptop as I’m in my room 90% of the time,” says Rider Hill, who lives in Leyton, London. With the money that was donated he bought a new monitor for £300 as it was too expensive to fix the screen itself and bought a refurbished iPhone. “If the pandemic had happened 10 years earlier it would have been harder but now we have the infrastructure to set things up online.”
Ruth Patrick, a lecturer in social policy and social work at the University of York, says people are using crowdfunding to plug gaps in government support.
“We have a government that is very much focused on providing support to working families but ignoring help for families that for whatever reason can’t work, or people whose parents are disabled or people caring for children who are disabled or have young children,” Patrick says. “It doesn’t surprise me that people are turning to crowdfunding.”
Still, she warns that crowdfunding is not a long-term solution. “There’s a lot of shame and stigma to this,” she says. “It’s much better to have a decent level of income to support you and your family. We need to go back to having a social security system that’s fit for purpose. We need to reverse the £20 cut and increase child benefits.”
However, with gas and electricity bills rising, the future looks bleak for many. “Millions will be struggling this winter,” Patrick says.
A government spokesperson says: “Universal credit offers a vital safety net to millions of people, enabling them to support themselves and their families while building towards financial independence through work. It ensures fairness for both claimants and the taxpayer, and the changes we have made [in December] will see nearly 2 million working universal credit claimants better off by about £1,000 a year on average.”
* Name has been changed.