Benefit ‘reforms’ damage work prospects and independence, research finds

By Savi Hensman
April 1, 2015

Benefit ‘reforms’ which are supposed to get more people into paid work have often made life harder for those in, or seeking, jobs, research reveals. They have also undermined independence in other ways and caused suffering and injustice.

Successive UK governments have brought in measures making life harder for people who are on low incomes, unemployed, sick or disabled. These were often portrayed as ‘scroungers’ or lacking the skills or confidence to work and contribute to society.

Changes to ‘welfare’, as social security is now often labelled, have intensified under the Conservative-led coalition which took power in 2010. Many claimants have had benefits reduced or suspended due to sanctions, been placed on work programmes or ordered to seek jobs while sick, though appeals have often succeeded.

A London School of Economics study has tracked the impact on a sample of housing association tenants in south west England. Other research on tenants in the north of England has used different methods but also examined the effects on people’s lives.

The findings have exposed grave flaws in the assumptions behind the changes, which have frequently reduced, rather than increased, independence. They have also caused great harm at times when people most needed support.

A team led by an LSE professor carried out two rounds of interviews over a two-year period with 200 tenants from nine housing associations in the south west, in partnership with the Housing Associations Influence and Leadership Organisation (HAILO). This covered both urban and rural areas. Is Welfare Reform Working? by Eileen Herden, Anne Power and Bert Provan was published in late March 2015. The statistics and personal accounts are revealing and sometimes disturbing.

Between 2013 and 2014, only one-sixth of tenants had either found work or increased their hours. Those who got jobs most commonly worked for family members or became self-employed. Most new jobs were part-time with uncertain hours. Barriers to work included ill health or disability, caring responsibilities, high childcare and transport costs, poor skills and lack of suitable jobs. Yet most of those who were economically inactive contributed to the community in other ways.

“I’ve worked all my life, my parents have worked all their lives. From 1971-2010 I worked and paid taxes. I spent six years in the armed forces. Why am I being penalised? The pension age goes up and up”, a participant explained. “It’s a struggle when you’re older and cannot do physical work anymore.”

Sanctions, far from prompting people to look harder for work, shifted jobseekers’ focus to immediate survival. They also caused debt and arrears that increased household vulnerability and decreased capacity to go out into the job market.

“A sanction stops your ability to eat, to pay your rent. You end up relying on friends and really go through the mill. This went on for three months in the middle of the winter. They apologised to me formally and I got paid in arrears afterwards, but the damage had been done”, said an interviewee.

Almost two-thirds of those affected by cuts managed to cope with having less money by cutting back on spending, sometimes on food, or by borrowing. One-third struggled financially. “I go to work and even with benefits there’s usually nothing left for myself. It all goes on the essentials”, one participant explained.

The bedroom tax affected a quarter of the tenants in the study. A participant said, “The way I see it is that we’re paying a tax on my disability. We can’t sleep in the same room. I need oxygen, which keeps my wife up at night. She needs her strength to care for me during the day. I also need a special mattress. We don’t have a spare room and yet we’re paying this money. It’s been very difficult.”

Government policy sometimes had devastating consequences. “My best friend committed suicide in March – she went through period of relentless reassessments, and found the forms very confusing. She was disabled but they were questioning her over and over again. She needed lots of support and she just didn’t get it,” a tenant told researchers. “I’m pretty certain that if these welfare reform changes weren’t going on, I’d still have her with me.”

The sixth of a series of Real Life Reform reports also appeared in March 2015. Seven social landlords from the north of England, with support from the Northern Housing Consortium and the University of York, each tracked 10-15 households affected by benefit changes, starting in 2013.

Average debt had gone up, and employment down, since the study began. A fifth had used a foodbank and over-two-fifths of respondents said their health had deteriorated. “I dread the winter because I have to walk four miles with my shopping bags”, said one of the many who could no longer afford public transport.

Part-time employees were especially badly-off financially. “I don’t have the heating on anywhere near as much as I would like to because it’s just too expensive. Plus I never know from one week to the next if I will be working the following week so I have to use as little as possible,” explained a tenant on a zero-hour contract.

These and other studies provide powerful evidence that social security ‘reforms’ are causing harsh suffering while failing to achieve the supposed aims. It is time for a change of direction.

* Is Welfare Reform Working? is available on

* Real Life Reform Report 6 and other reports can be found on


© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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