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Almost two-thirds of working age benefit claimants reported financial strain during first wave of Covid 19: new research report

23 February 2021

Drawing on data from the most comprehensive national study examining working-age benefits - Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) and Universal Credit (UC) - during the pandemic, a new research report provides an understanding of the bitter experiences of benefit claimants during the first wave of COVID-19.

The report is produced by Welfare at a (Social) Distance, a major national research project investigating the benefits system during the COVID-19 pandemic, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19 .

The report found that many benefit claimants were struggling with a considerable gap between their basic cost of living and the amount of benefit they received. 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.

Claimants 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 Kate Summers, Fellow at the London School of Economics, who led the report said:

“We should think more ambitiously about what ‘success’ means within our social security benefits system. Yes, the benefits system held up through the first wave of the pandemic, but fundamental issues remain in terms of the adequacy of payment levels, and people’s ability to access and understand the system.”She added:

“Some of the most severe forms of deprivation are most common among people who were making a claim before the pandemic started. These claimants, including those on legacy benefits, must not be forgotten in upcoming policy decisions.”

Claimants’ experiences of the social security system during the first wave of COVID-19 is available from distantwelfare.co.uk.

See also on disabilityrightsuk.org: