The nearly 6 million people claiming universal credit will soon see their payments cut by £20 per week, as the temporary “raise” is lifted in response to the pandemic.
An analysis by the anti-poverty charity Joseph Rowntree Foundation described it as “the largest overnight reduction in the basic rate of Social Security since the foundation of the modern welfare state”.
Whitehall’s own analysis described the cuts as “catastrophic”, and predicted an increase in homelessness and poverty. At the same time, the cost of living is rising, including a large increase in energy bills, and low-income households are expected to be affected the most.
Universal Credit claims affect individuals and families in many ways beyond financial. The emotional, mental and physical effects are severe – and the £20 cut will have a devastating impact on the well-being of many.
In my fieldwork on people’s experiences of “getting” while claiming sovereign debt, I heard direct accounts of the mental toll of their experiences. I spoke to 15 individuals aged 20 to 62 with a range of personal circumstances. Four of the interviewees were working and the rest were either looking for work that was not considered suitable for the job or had caring responsibilities.
As this research took place before the COVID-19 “uplift”, their stories offer a glimpse into what many more individuals and families will experience after the £20 cut.
‘It’s not a life’
All the participants were worried about money. The majority could not afford essentials such as food and utilities, and some feared losing their homes. Zara explained how it made her feel:
I don’t feel like a person anymore. Like this ain’t no life… you’re moving on to the next month. … like how can a government go back and say “You don’t deserve this. You’re not a person anymore”? I think that’s terrible.
Zara’s comments were also echoed by other participants, who found universal credit and subsequent poverty dehumanizing. In the end, Zara could not afford to rent out her flat and hence shifted to live with the family.
Not being able to afford food was a common and stressful experience, especially for parents who were concerned about being able to feed their children. Food poverty was persistent as the income from the participants was not sufficient to meet the universal credit. As Bill described:
I was never really hungry before I turned [universal credit] Yeah… I’m lacking things, you know, and like, ‘Oh, I might struggle a little’ by the end of the week, ‘kind of thing. But I’ve never been, ‘There’s literally nothing in the house and I’m hungry,’ you know. And I’ve lost … about four stone in weight.
The dire impact of Universal Credit for the bill also affected their ability to manage their existing health conditions. Other participants also described weight loss and a decrease in their physical health.
While on Universal Loan, Heather was diagnosed with malnutrition, as she could not afford to keep her body healthy. Heather relied on a food bank, where she paid £2.50 for 10 items, as she could not afford to shop elsewhere. This meant that the amount and amount of food she could eat was limited, resulting in her malnutrition:
I shouldn’t be hungry, I shouldn’t ration my food, I shouldn’t be sick.
Almost all of the participants described a detrimental effect on their mental health since they claimed universal credit.
One participant linked his suicide attempt directly to universal debt and his growing poverty. His recovery was further challenged by his poor physical health as he was unable to manage his diabetes.
A single parent with a teenage son, Isabel struggled to get universal credit, which negatively affected her mental health. She even said she was more likely to take her own life than to get a job, adding that low universal loan payments seemed to “punish people and make our lives absolutely impossible”.
I’m not paying all my bills, I’m not paying everything, I’m not eating well. [Universal credit] did nothing but destroyed the people. Destroy their mental well-being and their lives. … I honestly don’t know how people are coping because I know I’m not.
These feelings of frustration were felt by other participants as they attempted to navigate the obstacles of daily life, which were made more difficult by universal credit. The £20 cut would put millions at risk of poverty and lead a life where you “don’t feel like a person”.
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by email – [email protected] Other similar international helplines can be found here.