Taking the long view: better understanding the impact of welfare reform

Taking the long view: better understanding the impact of welfare reform

Ruth Patrick

With Brexit and Trump dominating headlines, the reach and consequences of ongoing welfare reform can sometimes slip down the news agenda. However, as Universal Credit is rolled out and further welfare reform implemented, it remains as important as ever to monitor the changing shape of Britain’s social security system. The past 35 years have seen successive and often radical changes to our benefits regime. In particular, there has been a gradual ratcheting up of welfare conditionality: the attachment of behavioural conditions (most often work-related) to benefits receipt. Under governments from Blair to Cameron, these conditions have been both extended to ever more of the benefit claiming population and intensified (with increased expectations and consequences for failures to comply with the demands made). Most recently, there has also been a reduction in the support available, with high profile ‘reforms’ such as the Benefits Cap and Bedroom Tax forming part of a wider project of ‘welfare residualisation’.

Ongoing welfare reform is justified on the basis of a ‘need’ to address supposed cultures of ‘welfare dependency’ and to ensure that individuals cannot ‘choose’ benefits over paid employment. The mantra ‘work is the best route out of poverty’ is continually parroted, with politicians arguing that benefit changes will enable, support but ultimately compel individuals to make transitions off ‘welfare’ and into ‘work’.

Quantitative analyses illuminate the consequences of these changes. They have revealed their negative impact on poverty rates and the ways in which welfare-to-work programmes often do not in fact support targeted individuals into employment (see, for example, Brown & Hood and Swinford). This evidence base also demonstrates the links between increased sanctions and the rising numbers of food parcels handed out across the country. Further, research carried out for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown the growing problem of destitution in Britain: with over a million households today unable to afford the essentials they need to feed and clothe themselves, and keep warm.

While these quantitative analyses are invaluable, they cannot show the ways in which the policy agenda maps onto lived experiences. This is where qualitative research is particularly valuable. In depth interviewing can begin to unpick how benefit changes are experienced, generating rich data of individuals responses to welfare reform. There is particular scope here in moving from one-off interviews to tracking individuals over time, exploring how benefit changes are anticipated, experienced and reflected upon. Qualitative longitudinal research – as it is known – enables researchers to ‘walk alongside’ individuals, developing a detailed account of individual journeys across and through time. This has a particular relevance to social policy in general and welfare reform in particular, and to efforts to better understand interventions designed to engineer behavioural change.

Over the past six years, I have followed a small group of people directly affected by benefit reforms initiated by first the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Coalition and then the Majority Conservative Government. I spoke to single parents, disabled people and young jobseekers as they lived with the consequences of increased welfare conditionality and reductions in the financial value and availability of social welfare support. I followed their efforts to get by against a climate of insecurity about future benefit changes, and within a context in which ‘welfare’ and the lives of those in receipt of its most visible forms are continually stigmatised and derided.

What this research has shown is the extent to which welfare reform is simply not working.

Rather than moving people into employment that provides an escape from poverty, too often welfare conditionality and the constant threat of sanctions push people into insecure work, or – perversely – even further away from the paid labour market.

Take the welfare reform journeys of two of the individuals from my study.

When I first met her, Chloe, a single parent, was on Income Support and busy with the hard work of getting by in poverty. She spoke of the struggle to manage on a very low income, while doing all she could to care for her two young children. Chloe had worked in the past, but explained that she did not currently want to enter employment:

‘[Work] wouldn’t pay. It’d be good to go back to work ‘cause it would get me out of the house, give me a break from the kids but…it isn’t worth it so I don’t see the point in it….’

Chloe explained that she would need £400 to £500 a week for working to be worthwhile, and so described actively choosing to stay on benefits rather than seek employment. In this way – and only from a very superficial reading – Chloe might perhaps fit the caricature advanced by politicians of individuals choosing ‘welfare’ over ‘work’. Such individuals, the narrative goes, require tough measures and conditions to encourage them to move into employment, and so to escape poverty.

Over the course of the study, Chloe was migrated off Income Support and onto Jobseeker’s Allowance when her youngest child reached school age. This meant Chloe became subject to strict work-related conditionality, and was required to regularly attend the Job Centre and seek paid employment. Chloe, who had a history of domestic violence and mental health problems, immediately struggled with these demands. After less than four weeks in receipt of Job Seeker’s Allowance, Chloe was sanctioned, meaning immediate hardship for her and her two children:

‘We’re paupers, we’re so poor. It’s like we’re living in – you know where you see all these adverts – please feed our children – feed my bloody children… Me Dad asked me if I were on drugs the other day, and I said, “No.” He said I’m looking right withdrawn in face. I said, “Dad, I am stressed, you have to have money to get drugs, Dad.” So at the end of the day, no, it’s stress, can’t cope.’

As a result of the sanction, Chloe sought support from a local charity. With their help, she successfully applied for the disability benefit Employment and Support Allowance. This meant she was able to claim disability benefits with fewer work-related conditions. Over time, then, welfare reform had only a negative impact on Chloe and actually moved her further away rather than close to paid employment. The stress and anxiety that a sanction caused led to a deterioration in her mental health, and the financial hardship adversely impacted not only on Chloe but on her two young children.

Of those I interviewed more than once, only one – young jobseeker Sam – directly attributed welfare-to-work interventions with supporting a move into paid work. At the beginning of the research, Sam, a care leaver, was receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance. Reflecting an internalisation of the entrenched stigma of benefits receipt, Sam was very negative about having to claim benefits:

I need a job; because I’m sick of scrounging. That’s how I think of it, anyway, I’m sick of scrounging.

After two years on Jobseeker’s Allowance, Sam was referred onto the Work Programme, where she was targeted with additional, mandatory employment-related support. In fact, the compulsion was unnecessary: Sam was keen to take up all the support available. She was delighted when the Work Programme set up an interview for her with a large retail company. The interview was successful and Sam moved into retail employment.

In this way, Sam was a ‘success story’: an individual who had been directly supported from ‘welfare’ and into ‘work’. However, the work Sam moved into was insecure and poorly paid. It did not enable her to escape poverty: undermining the ‘work is the best route out of poverty’ mantra. She was contracted to eight hours employment a week, with her hours and days varying week-by-week. Sam felt unable to make plans as she was often called into work at short notice. She worried that if she were asked to come in but be unable, work might not offer her additional hours when they were next available.

The income she received did not enable Sam to escape poverty, and she often contemplated going to food banks, such was the financial hardship she faced. Instead, she relied on the kindness of her boyfriend’s mother:

‘his mum took it upon herself to give me about half a dozen things to get me through the weekend. So, and she still gives me a couple of things every time my boyfriend comes over for the weekend…she’ll get like microwavable hot dogs, pizzas stuff like… It gets me through a day so I’m not hungry. And she still does it now…she helps me out.’

When I interviewed Sam – most recently – in 2016, she was still in the same role, and had been in the job for three years. She was thankful to be in employment, rather than reliant on out-of-work benefits, although she still struggled with in work poverty.

Both Sam and Chloe were directly affected by welfare reform, and in particular the ratcheting up of welfare conditionality and mandatory forms of welfare-to-work support. Following them over time illustrated the ways in which individual experiences so often clash with and contradict the policy intent. The evidence from my research is that welfare reform is failing to support individuals into secure, sustainable work that provides relief from poverty. Instead, it is all too often pushing people further away from rather than closer to work – as in Chloe’s case – or into work that is badly paid, and insecure, as in Sam’s. As further reforms are rolled out, it is critical to continue to follow individuals such as Sam and Chloe, enabling a more finely grained and richer understanding of experiences of welfare reform.

Ruth Patrick is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Law and Social Justice at the University of Liverpool.