This story is part of a series of portraits exploring how the cost-of-living crisis is affecting people around the world.
Tilburg, Netherlands – Hanny Heuvelink fears the moment the mail arrives. Any day now, the post could deliver the final bill for the past year’s gas and electricity and she worries about the amount she will have to pay.
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When you are on welfare like Heuvelink and have only about $40 a week for daily expenses, a sudden hike in your gas and electricity bill can prove to be a fatal blow to the budget. Not that Heuvelink is one to complain. “Niet mauwen, maar kauwen [don’t dwell on your sorrows]” is the motto of the cheerful 57-year-old.
Balancing a tiny budget has been Heuvelink’s speciality for decades, but the price hikes of the past months caught her unaware. Inflation in the Netherlands has hovered at about 10 percent since the beginning of the year, making grocery shopping a challenge.
The bag of bread rolls she always buys – “more filling than sliced bread” – that cost $1.25 last year now sells for $1.75, she says. These days, Heuvelink goes to four different supermarkets to find the cheapest products. It is a time-consuming exercise but she says she has no other choice.
Due to rising living costs, she already plans to not switch on the heating later this year, in fact – she has not since 2018 – and instead will spend the cold months under a blanket on the couch, not inviting anyone in.
Heuvelink’s is one of the 550,000 households in the Netherlands that, according to the independent Netherlands Organisation of Applied Scientific Research (TNO) lives in “energy poverty”, meaning that they spend more than 7 percent of their already low income on electricity and gas. That is one in 15 households in the European country that ranks fourth on financial and insurance company Allianz’s list of nations with the richest citizens. And these statistics date from 2021, before gas prices quintupled.
That is exactly what worries Heuvelink, she says as she gets up from the slightly worn, sky blue dining table chair. It is a sunny day in July in Tilburg, a city in the southern province of North Brabant. Pots of hardy long-leafed snake plants brighten up the corners of the narrow living room of the row house she rents from the local social housing corporation. The open French doors to her little garden letting in the warm summer air will remain firmly shut come winter.
Balancing a tiny budget
Like most Dutch consumers, Heuvelink has a long-term contract with a gas and electricity company with a fixed price per cubic metre of gas. An estimated bill comes every month, and after a year the meter is checked to see if the actual usage exceeded the estimate. If it has, she will have to pay the difference. This is the moment Heuvelink is dreading. But to make matters worse, her long-term contract has come to an end, and she will have to renegotiate terms with the gas company.
At the moment, Heuvelink’s monthly bill is $150, which constitutes an already hefty 15 percent of her monthly social assistance of about $1,000. She fears the amount with a new contract might be twice as high. “Who knows how much I have to pay extra,” she says, and this time, her ready smile does not hide her deep concern. The Dutch government has recently paid a one-time energy allowance to low-income households to help them cope with the price hikes, but Heuvelink worries that the $700 she received in recent months will not cover the increase by a long shot.
The first indications from the two biggest gas and electricity providers in the Netherlands show she might be right. They have recently increased the annual amount of their standard contract from $2,000 – about what Heuvelink is paying – to $5,000.
The mother of three has been living on welfare for a long time and is used to getting by on the bare minimum. She takes speedy in-and-out showers – “you get very good at that” – and prefers to cook with the oven rather than the stove as electricity is cheaper than gas. And every night, she disconnects all her electricity plugs to prevent them from guzzling electricity in sleep mode. “Those kinds of things become second nature,” she says, shrugging her shoulders.
‘Mum’s not hungry’
For the optimistic Heuvelink, life has not been easy. She was pregnant with her first child when the child’s father was killed in a traffic accident. The baby was sickly, just like the next child she conceived with a new partner.
Her son and daughter have a rare genetic disorder called Noonan syndrome, which causes conditions from coronary disease to kidney problems. Only when they were diagnosed did she discover that she suffered from the same hereditary disease, which is why she never grew taller than 1.56 metres (5.1 feet) and experiences muscle weakness and heart issues.
Fortunately, her third child did not develop the disorder, but Heuvelink had to travel to clinics in other towns every week for her other two children to receive growth hormone treatments. The transport expenses alone exceeded her social security cheque. Her partner, who had not stuck around, turned out to have run up debts in her name.
Her situation as a single mother with a hereditary disease and unwell children made finding a suitable job almost impossible, which is why she has had to rely on social welfare all her adult life. In 2015, she ended up in debt relief for six years, where social services manage your budget while your debt is being paid off and you get a weekly allowance of about $50.
Heuvelink says she set aside enough money for the occasional meal at McDonald’s but had enough only to pay for her children. “I’d always tell them: ‘Mum’s not hungry,’” she says with a self-effacing smile.
The stigma attached to poverty
Now her kids have left the house she only has herself and her two cats to feed. She buys mostly tinned and canned food because fresh fruit and vegetables are too expensive. For those, she goes to the market on Saturdays at 4:30pm, when the vendors need to get rid of perishables and lower their prices.
When she really cannot postpone the hairdresser’s any more – just a cut, nothing fancy – she will skip a proper dinner for a couple of nights and have bread instead. The same goes for when she is out of toilet paper or detergent. She says a higher utility bill in the future might simply mean she will have to skip more warm meals. “And you can forget about cookies with the coffee,” she says, about the local social custom expected when visitors come to call.
Heuvelink admits that such things used to make her feel embarrassed, because a lifetime on the dole has taught her that there is a stigma attached to poverty. “When people know you are poor, they often assume it is your own fault,” she says. “They think you are stupid.”
But gone are the days of getting under a table or answering the door wearing a coat and pretending to be on her way out when a visitor rang the doorbell in the winter. People now know about Heuvelink’s situation and she no longer hides the fact that she cannot afford to heat her home, she says.
Since October 2019, Heuvelink does volunteer work, serving food at the local Resto van Harte, a low-budget restaurant for the underprivileged. Besides the free dinners she gets as a volunteer, the interaction with people keeps her going and has given her self-confidence, she says. “Those are my happy moments. And in winter, it’s nice and warm.”
Apart from volunteering at the restaurant, she pours coffee and answers the phone line at another charity focused on alleviating silent poverty, called Quiet. Though a rich country in general, Dutch wealth distribution is skewed, with the most affluent 10 percent owning 61 percent of the wealth. On the other hand, the Dutch independent budget institute NIBUD recently raised the alarm that due to inflation and rising utility bills, one in three households in the Netherlands cannot make ends meet.
Meanwhile, Heuvelink is gearing up for winter. Her fleece blanket and the electric cushion that has a little heating element inside, are already on the sofa to snuggle up with when temperatures go down. The heater will remain off. All she can do is hope that this strategy will avoid her gas and electricity bills going through the roof.