With all the debate and promises around Universal Credit, Abigail Davis writes that it is time to step back and ask ‘what kind of society do we want’? One that helps those in need or punishes them for not having enough? It is these answers that should ultimately guide decisions around what we call ‘benefits’.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Universal credit was intended to simplify the processes involved in claiming and receiving help. This was help for people who needed it most – those in our society who were trying to make ends meet. Those who could not work, or who if they were working, could not earn enough to do more than ‘just about manage’ – and that’s if they were lucky.
What we are seeing instead is something that continues to be complex and, in some cases, causes more problems than it solves. Some much needed changes have been made or are planned; making the helpline number free to call, the reduction of the time people will have to wait between making a claim and receiving help – but problems persist and the effects the change in systems has made continues to affect those most vulnerable.
Our research on what people need for a minimum income , and on what happens when they don’t reach it, shows that the system faces two huge challenges that will take more than a handful of Budget measures to resolve. First, it shows how damaging the uncertainties that Universal Credit is introducing can be to the lives of low-income families. Second, and even more fundamentally, it shows how this reform is being introduced against a backdrop of declining public support, relative to people’s minimum needs, which is itself putting increasing strain on family budgets.
Some people in working households on low incomes live in fear of Universal Credit. They express fear at the prospect of something changing in their lives that may be seen as needing to be a new claim, because then they will be forced to move onto Universal Credit. Suddenly, their hard-won and already fragile stability will be toppled because instead of receiving separate amounts for different types of support at more frequent intervals – meaning that they can juggle their finances to just about stretch – payments will be turned into one monthly lump sum. This is paid directly into the bank. If they are overdrawn it will be swallowed, either partially or wholly, leaving them to cope with less for another month until the next payment. They are particularly unlikely to be able to stay in credit if this payment is delayed by several weeks, during which they receive no payment at all. The spectre of universal credit looms large over those ‘careless’ enough to get a job, lose a job, have a baby, or experience any other kind of change that initiates this process. As it strikes more and more families, it’s no wonder that the demand on foodbanks is increasing and households turn to relying on credit cards just to cover routine expenses every month.
A decade of research looking at what people think of as an acceptable standard of living shows that despite a downturn in the country’s financial well-being, how people envisage this standard has not significantly changed. Just because it is becoming increasingly hard to afford to live at the standard described, and more households are at risk of not being able to meet it as time goes on, doesn’t mean the standard itself is falling. The general public do not feel that it is acceptable to expect people to have less access to goods and services, participate less, socialise less, even though thanks to falling incomes in real terms, they have less to do it with.
What this means for families and households across the UK is that they are having to make difficult choices every day. Everyone can cope for a finite spell without life’s little luxuries, or even the larger ones. Not replacing a bottle of bubble bath when it runs out might not seem like much of a sacrifice. Going without a family holiday for a year or two, or three, or four, might not seem to many people to constitute hardship. But there are families where parents can never see a time when they might be able to have a holiday. Whose children will grow up never having been away from home, whether on a school trip or with their own parents, because that is permanently out of reach. Where there is never enough in the budget to justify the expense of a parent visiting the dentist, let alone having a bubbly bath to unwind in after a hard day.
All of this poses challenging questions for us as an electorate as well as the representatives who serve us. What kind of society do we want? One that helps those in need or punishes them for not having enough in the first place? What kind of system do we have if the people who are supposed to benefit from its existence live in fear of its implementation? Who benefits from a scheme whose roll-out itself causes people to fall into arrears and become evicted? How can we call these ‘benefits’?
Roads paved with good intentions do not have to lead to only one destination, but policy-makers need to take a long hard look at the map and think about where this is taking us.
Note: the above draws on the author’s chapter ‘What the Minimum Income Standard Tells us About Living Standards in the United Kingdom’ (with Matt Padley) in ‘Inequalities in the UK: New Discourses, Evolutions and Actions‘.
Abigail Davis is Research Fellow at Loughborough University.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay/Public Domain.