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The everyday realities of welfare reform

‘Welfare reform’ is making life even harder for those who rely on benefits, says Ruth Patrick, who spent five years interviewing people about their experience. Her new book For whose benefit? is launched this week.

Over recent years, deriding ‘welfare’ and the lives of those who receive it has been a popular past time for prominent politicians. From both left and right, politicians have talked of cultures of welfare dependency, people passively ‘languishing’ on ‘welfare’ and the problem of those who ‘choose’ benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’.

This popular political narrative is reinforced by a media that often seems quick to stigmatise those in receipt of out-of-work benefits as a deficit other: demarcated and found wanting when compared with a lauded ‘hard-working majority’.

The notion of ‘welfare’ as inherently and inevitably negative has been employed to justify successive waves of welfare reform. Over the past thirty five years, there has been significant and far reaching changes to our social security system, with some regarding Britain’s safety net as now ‘in tatters’.

Under the 2010 conservative and liberal democratic coalition, the welfare reform agenda gathered pace as the Duncan-Smith, Cameron and Osborne trio residualised welfare provision and made access to benefits ever more conditional. Reforms have been justified as necessary cost-cutting measures: part of an austerity agenda to overhaul a supposedly bloated and overly generous system. Politicians also claim that reforms will help those on out-of-work benefits to make better choices, supporting individuals to ‘do the right thing’ by turning their back on social welfare and instead entering paid employment.

‘If politicians really want to “reform” social security, they need

to pay much more heed to the everyday realities of those on benefits’.

This narrative – although hard to substantiate – pervades public and political discourse. Indeed, today it is possible to speak of a new framing consensus on ‘welfare’ given the extent of agreement among politicians, media and majority public opinion.

Against this context, we hear relatively little about the everyday realities for those in receipt of out-of-work benefits. In my research, which started back in 2010, I have sought to foreground these lived experiences through actively listening to individuals directly affected by welfare reform.

By speaking to a small number of single parents, disabled people and young jobseekers, I have been able to track the reach and impact of welfare reform. Repeat interviews (some individuals were interviewed four times between 2011 and 2016) meant I walked alongside claimants, exploring how far and whether their individual journeys corresponded with the political rhetoric of welfare reform enabling transitions from ‘welfare’ and into ‘work’. [Spoiler: they did not].

What this research shows is the extent to which welfare reform is simply not working. Welfare conditionality is experienced as a blunt intervention: compulsion, threats and sanctions prove ineffective and unhelpful when targeted at individuals who most often want to work where they feel able.

Further, ongoing changes to welfare creates a climate of chronic and severe insecurity. The individuals I spoke to sometimes felt unable to actively plan for the future because of the uncertainty about what might happen with their benefits. Here, welfare reform interfered with rather than promoted efforts to find work. A similar outcome was found when benefit sanctions pushed people into destitution and meant they were busy seeking food, and thus unable to devote time and energy to job search activities.

Taken together, the ‘burden of welfare reform’ is making the lives of those already living in poverty only harder still. Young jobseeker Robert became homeless after being made subject to the harshest of sanctions: three years without benefits. Single parent Chloe moved further away rather than closer to work when she struggled to cope with strict work-related conditions and experienced declining mental health. This made a difficult life only harder still, not only for Chloe, but also for her two young children. Disability benefits claimant Isobella faced repeated and ongoing battles to secure her entitlement to benefits, and described this leaving her frightened about her future:

‘I’m waiting for the brown envelope and that could tip me over the edge if there was something detrimental or negative that come back from it…just feels a bit like there’s a Damocles over your head while you’re waiting.’

As well as the evident financial hardship that benefit changes so often cause – most visible in the exponential growth in food banks, they can also have significant negative impacts on individuals’ physical and mental health. The burden of welfare reform also extends to the pressure it places on charitable forms of provision, welfare advice services and the financial costs of the bureaucracy created by the (often successful) challenges to benefit decisions with which claimants do not agree.

If politicians really want to ‘reform’ our social security system, they need to start by paying much more heed to the everyday realities of those in receipt of out-of-work benefits. Doing so starkly demonstrates the extent to which the current reform agenda is flawed and unfit for purpose. Until politicians engage much more effectively with these lived experiences, welfare reform will continue to create an unnecessary but heavy burden.

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