On Wednesday 6 October—on the same day that the UK prime minister Boris Johnson delivers his leadership speech to the Conservative Party Conference—5.5 million households will see the biggest overnight cut to social security provision in the history of our welfare state. The £20 cut to Universal Credit has rightly been the source of much campaigning, with a wide and ever growing number of politicians, charities, think tanks and academics calling on the government to reverse the cut. Using the hashtag, #keepthelifeline, this campaign effort has mobilised some compelling numbers and analysis: 500,000 people will be swept into poverty overnight by the cut, of which 200,000 are children. The longer-term impact of the cut will be even greater, with analysis suggesting 1m additional households will face poverty in 2022 because of the cut, including 500,000 children.
These figures should make it clear that the £20 cut is bad policymaking in the worst of times. As we enter what looks set to be an incredibly difficult winter due to a perfect storm of inflation, shortages of fuel, and rising energy costs, withdrawing this support from families living on a low-income is best characterised as policymaking that proceeds despite of, rather than because of, the evidence base and wider policy context.
Yet, while statistics and economic modelling of the impact of the £20 cut are vital, what they cannot capture is the visceral fear, uncertainty, and, often—terror—that households about to be affected are experiencing as they wait for the cut to hit. Many of these families simply cannot work out how they will square the circle of getting by with less at a time when the costs of their essential outgoings are rising at an often frightening rate.
Through the Covid Realities research programme, we have been working with over 100 parents and carers living on a low-income since the pandemic began, who have been sharing their experiences and developing proposals for change. Parents like Winter, who has long worried about the impact the removal of the £20 will have:
The proposed change [removing £20 uplift] is the difference between paying our bills and not being able to pay some of them. And if one off expenses crop up (like new shoes for kids etc) then you can’t cover it. Any changes to benefits are very stressful. (Winter, England)
The cut to Universal Credit was first supposed to take effect in April 2021, with the Government instead approving a six month extension at the last minute. Families have been left in a state of endemic insecurity, worried about what will happen, when the cut takes effect. They have already faced two cliff edges of worry, anxiety, and fear, which have made it hard to plan or prepare for the future—or indeed to have hope that things might get better for them and their children, despite politicians’ repeated promises to “build back better” and to “level up.”
Lois sets out the impact of this anxiety:
I feel a bit desperate to be honest about the UC cut. I feel really worried that we can’t afford to have any peace of mind whilst we navigate a scary winter. I can’t just panic shop like others can because I have no buffer financially… [This] drop in vital support (we needed it before) just as things are getting more expensive, has crushed me mentally. Taking medication just to stay level. (England)
Parents like Lois describe how the £20 cut has been an ever-present fear for families, causing stress and anxiety even before it has taken effect. If the fears of parents and carers are realised and the cut does go ahead, these harmful mental health effects are only likely to worsen as families must try and find new ways to get by on less. Poverty and financial insecurity are stressful at the best of times, let alone during a winter as difficult as the one it looks like we might have ahead of us.
The cut will likely ”cause a shockwave of hardship that will leave a long legacy of mental health problems in its wake.” It represents a short-termist approach to policy making that ignores the scope for far reaching negative impacts on mental health, and is ultimately likely to widen health inequalities—the effects of which could take months or even years to emerge.
The £20 cut is the wrong decision, taken at the worst possible time. The Government should think again:
I want the government to really think hard about this. £20 a week for me and my child so I don’t have to rely on charity food banks, I can keep my car and have heating and food, I can have a little dignity and keep trying to get my foot up the ladder out of the big dark abyss of Universal Credit but this feels like I’ve a foot on my head pushing me down again because I don’t deserve a chance. A chance to even try to improve my life to get out of this rut and become self reliant (Teddy, Northern Ireland).
Ruth Patrick, Lecturer, Department of Social Policy & Social Work, University of York
Katie Pybus, Research Fellow, Department of Health Sciences, University of York
Competing interests: none declared
The project on which the above draws has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.