Living in poverty | 

Irish mum has to choose between buying bread or milk as the cost of Christmas looms

“I haven’t bought a turkey in about three years. There is no Christmas excess in our house.”

Caroline Rice

Sunday World

Working mum Caroline Rice is already having to choose between buying bread or milk as the cost of Christmas looms.

And she fears the promised fuel support payments from government may never reach desperate families who were counting on help.

Despite working full-time as a classroom assistant, Caroline is one of thousands of families in Northern Ireland turning to food banks for help.

“It just makes you feel less valued, and I feel resentment and anger with myself,” says the mum-of-one.

“I ask myself what I’m doing wrong, but I know I’m not doing anything wrong.

“I’m doing the right thing because I have to do it to make sure I have food in the house, but I shouldn’t have to do it because I’m working.”

According to shocking statistics from Save the Children NI one in four children in Northern Ireland are growing up in poverty and one in five kids don’t have access to a ready source of food.

Empty wallet Pic: Getty Images.© Getty Images

The Consumer Council’s income tracker shows the spending power of low-income households after paying for basics has dropped by almost a fifth in the past year, to just £29 per week.

And households on low incomes are nearly ten per cent worse off than the rest of the UK, which has now received a third fuel support payment.

Caroline, 49, from Lisnaskea in Fermanagh, fears families in Northern Ireland are being used as bait by the UK government, punished for the lack of an Executive after the DUP refused to return to the Assembly until its concerns about the Brexit protocol are resolved.

She believes children are paying the price for political stalemate.

“I do think we’re being used as bait, and it’s not going to work. If the government thinks it’s going to work, they’re going to look very foolish.

“It’s the children who are going to pay for this for years to come.”

With oil heating, Caroline had hoped to save three months of the promised £69 fuel payments to heat her home over Christmas but doesn’t expect to receive anything until 2023.

She would try to get by without heating but couldn’t let her school-age daughter sit in a freezing home.

Before winter bites, she’s already cut back on basics and there won’t be any ad-friendly groaning tables of food in their home this Christmas. Gifts will be bought from a catalogue and paid off until well into next winter.

“Milk has gone up to nearly £1.90 so I don’t go and buy milk and bread, I buy one or the other,” says Caroline.

“It means I don’t drink milk in my tea and there’s no choice of toast or cereal in the morning.

“At Christmas we might get a wee bit of beef from the butcher’s and when my daughter goes to her daddy’s, I’ll eat whatever is in the house.

“I haven’t bought a turkey in about three years. There is no Christmas excess in our house.”

Despite the damning statistics about hardships faced by working parents and families on benefits Caroline says speaking out often brings cruel judgement.

“There are still real stereotypes, that you are not managing your money properly or you could cut back, or you could sell your car and buy a smaller one, even though your car is ten years old and selling it wouldn’t buy another one.

“I know people who have spoken out about struggling financially who get comments like ‘sell your TV’ or ‘sell your cooker.’

“When it’s suggested that we could get the £400 fuel payments in cash you get people saying, ‘they’ll just go and smoke it or drink it.’ God forbid anyone who is feeling the pinch should buy a bottle of wine.

“No parent is not going to heat their home if they have the cash to do it.”

Caroline says it’s a disgrace that people in Northern Ireland are being held to ransom, but even when there was a working executive there wasn’t an effective poverty strategy.

The extra £20 per week provided to families on benefits during Covid made a huge difference to her life and the outspoken mum believes it would be the easiest way to help communities under pressure in the face of soaring food costs. Food inflation, particularly for basics like dairy and milk hit 12.4pc in November, and prices will continue to rise next year according to the British Retail Consortium.

Caroline fears the fuel payments will be forgotten and local people should be angry at their treatment.

“I’m not just talking from the point of view of low-income households, I’m talking about the inequality. We were all promised it and the government is not getting it to anyone yet, but people in the UK are already on their third month of payments,” she says.

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