Over the past 35 years, the UK’s social security system has been subject to wave after wave of reform. Changes have been implemented as part of efforts to end what politicians so often describe as “a culture of welfare dependency” and an ever greater role has been found for welfare conditionality – the attachment of conditions (most often work-related) to benefits receipt. Significant changes occurred during the New Labour governments, and then again under the Conservative leadership post-2010. The scale of cuts to state support has been staggering, and the consequences extreme. A few figures are instructive here.
Compared with 2010, by 2021, as much as ₤37bn less will be spent on working-age social security and this is despite rising prices and increased living costs. This represents a 25% reduction in total benefits expenditures, with particularly big cuts in expenditure on disability benefits, which are designed to help some of the most vulnerable in our society.
Not surprisingly, the impact of these cuts in social security support is borne out in rising child poverty, increased destitution, and a growing reliance on food banks among many of the UK’s poorest families. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that absolute child poverty will rise by four percentage points between 2015-16 and 2021-22, attributing three-quarters of this increase (equivalent to 400,000 children) to benefit changes. The anti-poverty charity – the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – estimates that over 1.5 million individuals faced destitution at some point in 2017, while the UK’s largest food bank provider – The Trussell Trust – handed out 1,332,952 parcels of three-day emergency food supplies to people during the financial crisis year of 2017-18.
Despite these figures, the UK government remains committed to benefit changes and continues to justify and uphold its package of welfare reform. It is continuing with the introduction of Universal Credit, a benefit designed to simplify the benefits system and sharpen incentives to work, but one that has been plagued by problems with its design and implementation. Prime Minister Theresa May continues to argue that “work is the best route out of poverty,” despite the evidence that as many as two-thirds of people in poverty are now living in households where someone is working.
The lived experiences of welfare reform
Against this context, it is vital to explore everyday experiences of benefit changes, and to document the impact that welfare reform is having on the lives of those directly affected. This has been the purpose of The everyday realities of welfare reform study, which has tracked a small number of people affected by benefit changes living in a northern city of England. Through repeat interviews with jobseekers, single parents, and disabled people, it has been possible to track the impact of welfare reform on individual lives and the ways in which a political narrative that says “welfare reform is necessary, and is working” contrasts very strongly with the lived experiences of those directly affected.
For the participants in the study, repeated changes to their benefits have created a climate of social insecurity, with constant worry and anxiety about the impact of changes and how individuals will cope with them. The processes of claiming benefits also cause worry, with disability benefits assessments in particular being a source of extreme fear and uncertainty. Sharon described how she felt about having her disability benefits constantly reassessed: “It puts a lot of stress on [me]… I think about it all the time.”
Further, the increased welfare conditionality is experienced very negatively, with the threat of sanctions and subsequent loss of income a constant possibility that preoccupies claimants and leaves them fearful about how they would cope if their benefits were taken away. Even those who comply with every element of the conditionality regime worry nonetheless, and are resistant to engaging with Jobcentre Plus “support” for fear that it will lead to further conditions, and make a sanction more likely.
There is evidence of increased poverty and hardship, with many participants recounting the very difficult choices they have to make (often daily) such as whether to heat or to eat, and how parents so often go without so that their children can have what they need. As Chloe put it: “We’re paupers, we’re so poor. It’s like we’re living in – you know when you see all those adverts – please feed our children – feed my bloody children.”
What the research also shows is the ways in which people experience the stigma of benefits, and feel that their own eligibility and entitlement for support is being questioned by the conditionality regime, and by repeat benefit reassessments. They also describe the institutional stigma they experience when visiting Jobcentre Plus or engaging in forms of welfare-to-work support. Here, they regularly encounter advisers who they feel look down on them, and treat them without either dignity or respect. Sophie explained: “Basically they [job center advisers] look at us like rubbish.”
Overall, the research illustrates the very stark mismatch that exists between the popular political characterization of “welfare” and the lived realities, and the ways in which welfare reform makes the lives of people living in poverty only harder still.
A growing resistance
Over recent years, alongside the continued benefit changes, the UK has also witnessed a growing resistance to the reforms taking place. Importantly, this is coming in part from groups of people with direct experience of poverty and of out-of-work social security receipt, coming together to challenge the popular characterization of “welfare” and to campaign for change. For example, some of the participants from The everyday realities of welfare reform Study came together in 2013 to make a film that documented their experiences, in what became known as the Dole Animators project. The Dole Animators remain active, and have most recently been involved in Poverty 2 Solutions, working with two other groups to develop blueprints for what might really make a difference in tackling poverty. These two examples join countless others, and are evidence of a refusal to accept the partial account of welfare reform offered by mainstream politicians. This activity is very important, and is a much-needed source of hope, especially when set against the context of rising poverty and hardship as UK benefit changes continue to take effect.