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A Universal Credit Carol

by Erica Young, CAS Social Justice team.

This article was first published in the Herald on 23 December 2023.

Dickensian world concepts like the deserving and undeserving poor, and the working hungry, should be as remote from our era as Victorian images on a Christmas card. But sadly, they haunt our social security system.  

As many workplaces wind down for the season, it’s an appropriate time to reflect on why so many people with jobs - often working long hours and over the festive period - are relying on benefits to survive.    

We still hear the distorting narrative that workers are ‘strivers’ and benefits claimants are ‘shirkers’. In fact, over a third of people claiming our main means-tested benefit (Universal Credit) are in work, a proportion that has remained largely stable across the benefit’s ten-year lifespan. That’s 2.1 million people in the UK, doing jobs like looking after our loved ones in hospitals and social care, or serving us in restaurants, shops and pubs. Many of them are combining work with caring responsibilities, trying hard to make work pay.    

Of the people in work who seek our advice about UC, half have full-time jobs. When part-time and self-employed workers are included, the proportion of our UC clients in work is almost equal to that of those unable to work due to ill health or disability. And such in-work poverty disproportionately affects women: the majority of our clients seeking UC advice are female, over 40% of whom have a caring responsibility.   

Claiming UC while in work can itself be like a second job. The level of management required is intense, the hurdles encountered disorientating, the calculations complex. The amount of benefit that claimants receive is reduced by 55p in every £1 of earnings. Most self-employed claimants are assumed to have earnings equivalent to working full-time for the minimum wage, regardless of their actual earnings. People who are not paid monthly will find that they have a reduced or nil award at points in the year when they receive more wages than usual (this will happen four times across a year in the case of claimants who are paid weekly).  

And, counter-intuitively, having a job doesn’t necessarily provide a breathing space from having to engage with the Jobcentre. People earning less than a prescribed amount are treated as out of work claimants in respect of what they are expected to do. Those earning a little bit more, but still a low amount, are classed as not ‘working enough’, and are increasingly being expected to account for their poverty with the Jobcentre.  

Just in the last few days CAB advisers picking up the pieces have reported several such cases to me; a lone parent in part-time work who is facing a sanction due a missed appointment at the JobCentre, recently bereaved carers returning to the labour market who are unable to access support funds to help with travel costs, a part-time worker juggling study with managing a mental health condition being pressured to look for more work.     

It's 180 years since Dickens wrote about how the working poor father Bob Cratchit struggled to provide for his family at Christmas. We still dream of a society that enables everyone to live a dignified life, but that dream will remain elusive if we are distracted by divisive caricatures of ‘shirkers and strivers’. It’s time to consider solutions, not scapegoats.  

Merry Christmas.