Trapped in poverty by our social security system

‘They don't even help you anymore, they don't actually do anything.’ Women speak out about their experiences of Jobcentres and social security.

Living Income

The Labour Party last month erupted into a furore over Keir Starmer’s refusal to commit to a change to the current two-child limit on social security. Just weeks later, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced that the number of people who do not have a job due to long-term sickness has risen to another record high.

The need for an adequate, fair and effective social security system has never been more evident. Food bank usage is higher now than during the pandemic and 39% of households are struggling to afford a decent standard of living. As the cost of living crisis has rolled on, the weakest income safety net in 40 years has enabled poverty and destitution to encompass more families than at any point in recent times.

The entrenchment of poverty is disproportionately hitting women. The reasons for this are multiple: women take on the greater portion of caring responsibilities, 57% of cuts to social security and tax credits since 2010 are borne by women, and women’s wages are hammered by the gender pay gap. When paired with ethnicity, disability or age, the likelihood of a woman experiencing poverty is significantly increased.

Since the beginning of the year, we have been exploring these experiences, developing a deeper understanding of the issues women in the north – west of England face as they navigate our social security system. What we found, supported by a growing body of evidence, has revealed that the social security system is locking women and children in deep poverty, preventing access to jobs that pay a living wage and match up with caring responsibilities and skills.

The 16 women we spoke to highlighted that income support is both insufficient and unreliable. Most stated that they experience constant financial strain, making it difficult for them to plan or save money. They were often forced into a cycle of debt:

You can’t afford to live. So you’re borrowing money all month, and then, when you get paid, you’re paying people back and then borrowing again. So you’re constantly in debt as well.”
35-year-old single mother with one child, receiving universal credit and disability living allowance

Many of the women will skip meals or forego new clothes for themselves in an attempt to shield their children from the harshest realities of poverty. But the meagre social security and wages they have to live on can make these efforts futile, perpetuating a cycle of financial instability that corrodes their mental and physical health:

My mental health is just shocking constantly. Like, it’s just one thing after another. I’m constantly getting phone calls, letters saying I owe this, I owe that and I’m sitting there like, I don’t know what I’m expected to do if I’m borrowing at the end of the month to buy food for the girls or to buy food for myself.’”
29-year-old woman with two children, receiving universal credit

Unanimously criticised by the women in our research, the two-child limit restricts income support for families with more than two children. Most of the households affected by the policy are already in work and typically include single mothers and Black and minority ethnic (BAME) families from ethnic minorities.

The women in our research feel that the two-child limit removes their self-determination and autonomy over their lives and that of their families. In some instances, it leads to the erosion of women’s bodily autonomy. The policy can coerce and control women’s reproductive choices, pressuring some to terminate pregnancies as a direct consequence:

Regardless if I work or not work, I should be able to support a new baby, and you can’t, you can’t at all. It’s a horrible world we live in […] I’d say the benefits system that I was on has made me [end the pregnancy].”
28-year-old woman with two children, receiving universal credit and disability living allowance

Another repeating theme was the two-way link between being locked in poverty and the various barriers to securing good work. For example, several of the women shared that childcare costs are difficult to manage on zero-hour contracts or with fluctuating work incomes.

Some live under the threat of benefit sanctions that they say pressure them to accept any available job regardless of its wage, long-term stability, or suitability in terms of their aspirations, health conditions or caring responsibilities. This pressure was applied by Jobcentre staff made to administer a regime that prioritises enforcing rules over building trusting and productive relationships. This leads to a cycle of unsuitable work that exacerbates mental or physical health problems, leading to people falling out of work and having to re-enrol in the system:

They don’t even help you anymore, they don’t actually do anything, I don’t know what they’re paid for – you find your own jobs. Years ago I was on Jobseekers [Allowance]… And I remember… those job coaches did used to help you, they’d send you jobs. These, now, they don’t do anything, they just tell you, You’ve got to find a job or you get sanctioned.’ That’s their job, there’s no support.”
Single mother of one in her mid 30s, receiving universal credit and disability living allowance

If you’re going out looking for your job yourself, you’re going to pick a better job or one that’s more suited for you. But in the Jobcentre, they just tell you to pick as many jobs as possible and apply for them: I don’t care what you do, what your skills are, what you’re interested in. Just apply for them and hit this quota so that I can sign you off and I’ve done my bit.’ … I feel like it’s very much a numbers game for them because you have to just apply and apply and apply.”
Woman with one child, receiving universal credit

Taken in combination, the social security safety net that these women rely on erodes their control over their futures. The women we spoke with all want to shape their own lives and find an effective route out of poverty. Instead of a social security system designed to punish, we need policies that support this. But despite an increasing evidence base pointing to their cruelty and ineffectiveness, policies like the two-child limit and benefit sanctions persist.

In their place we’re calling for a Living Income: a programme of no-strings support to help people through tough times. The Living Income guarantee a minimum income to make sure everyone can afford life’s essentials.

We will explore the experiences of these women in greater detail in an upcoming report.

Photo: iStock

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