As the government prepares to deliver its next Budget, a new report co-led by Dr Ben Baumberg Geiger from the University’s Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR), is calling for a review of the benefits system to ensure those who are claiming benefits during (and beyond) the Covid-19 pandemic are adequately supported.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) reacted dynamically to process an unprecedented number of new claims last year as lockdown began. Alongside other changes designed to speed up the process, a £20 per week boost to Universal Credit was announced, to help claimants through the pandemic and lockdown restrictions. However, major concerns remain about specific aspects of the application process and the adequacy of payment levels.
The report, which comes from the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project (a major national research project investigating the benefits system during Covid-19 and its aftermath), found that many benefit claimants were struggling with a considerable gap between their basic cost of living and the amount of benefit they received. The project is led by the Sustainable Housing & Urban Studies Unit (SHUSU) at the University of Salford, working in collaboration with the University of Kent, the University of Leeds, the LSE and Deakin University, Australia.
Findings showed that almost 60% of new benefit claimants and 43% of existing claimants (i.e. who had been claiming since before the pandemic) had experienced a drop in their income which they were not able to manage by simply reducing their spending.
Almost two-thirds of all claimants reported some level of financial strain, saying they would not be able to replace or repair major electrical goods if they broke, and could not save £10 a month. Around half of claimants were experiencing some form of severe financial strain – one in six new claimants and one in five existing claimants had skipped a meal in the previous two weeks because they could not afford food.
People were using a range of strategies to ‘get by’ including borrowing from banks (using a credit card, an overdraft or a bank loan) or from friends/family, as well as receiving ‘gifts’ from friends/family. Food bank use and the use of emergency help from local authorities or third sector organisations were also evident.
Additionally, almost half (46%) of new claimants had experienced some sort of difficulty applying for benefits. These included: telephone accessibility; calculating their household income and expenses; providing information related to housing or childcare costs; providing supporting documentation to prove eligibility; and submitting a joint claim as a couple.
Many claimants were particularly confused by the amount of benefit they were eligible for. Universal Credit claimants were the least likely to understand their payments, with 18% saying that they did not understand how the amount they received was arrived at.
Claimants reported that although many DWP staff were kind and helpful when they spoke to them, they often felt that they did not always have the expertise and experience to fully answer their queries, perhaps reflecting the rapid redeployment of staff to frontline roles to cope with the large influx of new applications. It was common for claimants to need to seek extra advice and support outside the DWP. Social media groups, family and friends, employers, and wider social networks, were all drawn upon to navigate the application process.
Dr Geiger said: ‘The story of the benefits system during COVID-19 is partly a success story of processing an unprecedented number of claimants under immense pressure. But it is also a story of financial problems, with benefits often not providing enough for people to avoid financial strain and in some cases hunger. Even though benefits were made more generous during the COVID-19 pandemic, they still do not provide enough money for people to escape poverty. Rather than debating whether to cut benefits back to their pre-COVID-19 levels, we should be thinking about how to ensure that people who cannot get a job (or who earn low amounts) can avoid poverty.’
The Welfare at a (Social) Distance project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19. It represents the largest project in the UK focusing on the benefits system during Covid-19 and is providing rapid data to the DWP and other key organisations to support the response to Covid-19. Over the course of the project, researchers will be publishing regular reports, blogs, and briefings about different aspects of the benefits system. For more information on the project, to sign up for updates, or to share your ideas or personal experiences please visit https://www.distantwelfare.co.uk/