Universal credit doesn’t reward hard work. It makes the most vulnerable pay (The Guardian)

It was 2011 when universal credit was first launched, replacing a suite of legacy benefits with one monthly payment designed to “make work pay”. Then work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith touted it as “the most radical redesign of the benefits system this country has ever seen” and promised a transformative effect on the lives of its low-paid or out-of-work claimants. Six years on and with universal credit being steadily rolled out across the country, its impacts might just be proving him right.

Universal credit is, for example, already proving transformative for the claimants forced into new and desperate levels of poverty as a result of its six-week in-built delay before the administration of a first payment. Last week anti-poverty charity the Trussell Trust reported a 6.4% annual increase in administration of emergency food bundles at their food banks, with areas where universal credit has been fully rolled out showing referral rates at double the national average. In response, the trust has called explicitly for a reduction in waiting times.

This payment delay is only one feature built into the design and administration of universal credit that is already having a dangerous impact on claimants, particularly those already marginalised in myriad other ways. Take, for example, the stipulation that the benefit must be paid to a single head of household rather than to individual claimants. While this may reduce administration efforts and complications for the DWP, whose IT systems have already been dogged by universal credit-related glitches, it is also effective in disempowering women.

Access to financial resource is, after all, a key factor in gender inequality and one that has direct implications for child poverty. With women more likely to be out of work or in low-paid employment, a 1950s-esque “head of household” model based on outdated nuclear family units is likely to see men in heterosexual partnerships taking on the breadwinner role, stripping their partners of financial independence and decision-making power. Given that sanctions can be imposed on a whole household while payments are made to a designated recipient, women are left bearing responsibilities but with few of the rights that should reasonably go along with them. This situation is further worsened for women who find themselves in abusive relationships: by robbing women of access to financial independence and resources, the state essentially awards abusive men another means by which to trap their victims.

In other ways, too, the design of universal credit operates in practice to perpetuate the inequalities it should be seeking to eradicate. The Race Equality Foundation has spoken out about the racial discrimination built into the benefit, highlighting that the conditions of universal credit discriminate against bigger families with more children, who are statistically more likely to be BME. Likewise, the requirement to claim online takes no account of the low levels of digital literacy more likely to be found in BME communities and those already in poverty, who will be most in need of the financial buffer universal credit promises but are thus least likely to be able to access the benefit.

This strikes at an important tension at the heart of Conservative welfare reforms: that the ultimate aim of “making work pay” continues to fail on its own terms as long as those most likely to be out of work are also those most routinely failed by the work programme itself. Disability activists are just some of those to have spoken out about being trapped between a welfare-to-work programme that has rolled back the employment support available to disabled people, and the switch to universal credit, which has removed additional benefits available to them under the previous system.

Marginalised communities find themselves disproportionately hit by welfare reforms such as universal credit, while also held back from the employment pitched as their saviour. Far from rewarding hard work or making work pay, this welfare system builds on and reinforces the very inequalities that created this situation in the first place.

Universal credit is in many ways the epitome of a savage welfare reform agenda that co-opts the discourse of fairness and deservedness while explicitly building in to its offer the very opposite. While its design, conditions and administration have proven it unfit for purpose in general, the reality is that it is also those already vulnerable and marginalised in a number of other ways who will pay the biggest price.

Those reliant on the welfare system are not a homogenous mass that can be lumped together and sectioned off as “the poor”, but a diverse community of individuals with whole lives, identities and experiences that interact to marginalise them in an endless number of ways. That universal credit has become another force to do so only betrays the Conservative government’s welfare reforms for what they are: another strategy in the fortification of the inequalities and divisions that keep them in power.

Originally published in The Guardian.

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