We’re all trying to do one thing: live”

The impact of our social security system and how it needs to change, as told by the women who use it

A decade of social security cuts, stagnating wages, and the erosion of public services has left millions of households living in preventable poverty, with little choice but to sink further into debt as their incomes fail to keep pace with the cost of living. As a direct result of this degradation of the welfare state, low-income households have been left inexcusably exposed to the economic crises of the early 2020s. This is particularly true of women, who continue to endure the brunt of the austerity measures placed on social security.

Engrained societal norms, from caring responsibilities to gender pay gaps, mean women are more reliant on social security; as a result of the inadequacy of rates, they are also more likely to live in persistent poverty. In the 2010s, women made up 60% of the increase in relative poverty. In the 2020s, with food bank use at an all-time high, the pandemic and cost of living crises have only intensified the experience of living in poverty.

To better understand these dynamics between everyday life and social security, we conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews to share the stories of 16 women living in poverty in Liverpool and Manchester. They either have first-hand experience navigating social security or are prevented from accessing government support as a result of their no recourse to public funds (NRPF) status.

The income safety net is threadbare, failing its most basic objectives

Interviewees unanimously describe the support from social security as failing to meet their families’ daily needs. Unable to afford essentials like food, rent, and utilities, the women and their children experience severe financial strain, pushing them to fall back on emergency food aid while many of the interviewees rely on informal borrowing from friends and family or formal loans, including universal credit (UC) advances. Repaying these debts reduces their already insufficient income, perpetuating a cycle of financial struggle.

I’ve been lending [sic] money off my dad, and he’s getting made redundant soon. So, he said to me, I can’t keep lending you money, it’s going off credit cards,” and stuff like that.Woman, early 20s, two children, UC recipient

Punitive policies limit women’s autonomy

I’m a mum, and regardless if I work or not work, I should be able to be okay to support a new baby, and you can’t, you can’t at all. So it’s a horrible world we live in. And that’s where it’s put me, that I’d say the benefits system that I was on, has made me [end the pregnancy]. Woman, late 20s, two children, UC and disability living allowance (DLA) recipient

Lifestyle rules, such as the two-child limit and bedroom tax, limit the women’s self-determination and autonomy over their lives and the lives of their families. They describe how these policies often result in difficult choices regarding family planning, mental health, and relationships. The household-level assessment also perpetuates economic dependence on partners, which, in some cases, traps women in abusive relationships.

Conditionality and an inability to find childcare that fits with good work lock families in poverty

Women feel pressured to accept any available job, regardless of its wage, suitability, or long-term stability, shaping their low expectations of interactions with the system. This pressure is driven by the threat of sanctions and a conditionality regime that appears more focused on monitoring compliance than guiding or supporting career development.

That’s how it feels, like, they’re [Jobcentre staff] looking at you like, You just need to get off your arse and get any job. I don’t care if it’s, like, you have to travel out or it’s hard for you, or it triggers your mental health. Just get out.” Woman, early 30s, two children, self-employed UC recipient

These roles are often poorly paid with zero-hours contracts, contributing to the sense of entrapment in economic insecurity. For those who do move into work, childcare options are limited, failing to match their working patterns.

Internal interactions are inhospitable and external attitudes entrenched

Navigating social security is difficult for many and poor communication from the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) further reinforces the perception that the system is unsupportive. These interactions require significant time, energy, and digital literacy, a burden which results in partial take-up of entitlements and detracts from other important aspects of their lives, such as trying to find employment, pursuing education, or caring for their families. However, not all the women interviewed are entitled to support. The experience of three of the women sheds light on living with NRPF, forced to juggle multiple jobs while failing to make ends meet.

And they make you feel like you’re basically a tramp… you’re a scrounge — you’re scrounging for things. And we’re all trying to do one thing, just live. Woman, early 30s, one child, UC recipient

Most of the women also report that the stigma of social security receipt is pervasive and entrenched. Often present in the media and political narratives, the women feel this stigma is based on stereotypes portraying recipients as lazy, opportunistic, or taking an easy way out, which affects their self-perceptions and interactions with others. The stigma is often gendered and compounded by racial and anti-migrant prejudices.

You know when people look at you and they’re like, Oh, it’s these people,” especially when they know you’re not from here, you don’t speak [with] the accent. They’re like, Maybe these ones have come to take the money.” Woman, early 50s, two children (one living at home), UC recipient

A weak financial foundation worsens physical and mental health

Physical and mental health are directly impacted by the constant juggling of bills and the burden of debt, while the inadequacy of UC prevents social participation, contributing to isolation and exacerbating feelings of shame. Conditionality and the threat of sanctions also have a significant impact on their overall wellbeing while the incompatibility of some low-paid work results in mental or physical health breakdowns and the eventual re-enrolment in social security.

My mental health is just shocking constantly. 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.” Woman, late 20s, two children, UC recipient

Several of the women say these negative impacts on health and wellbeing also extend to their children, despite their best efforts to shield them from the harshest realities of poverty.

Designing a social security system that works for women is necessary

These experiences highlight the major challenges faced by women in the current social security system. To end these negative encounters with the state, social security needs to be improved – NEF has proposed replacing UC with the national living income (NLI). This system is rooted in three core principles:

  • Providing adequate support benchmarked to need.
  • Rebalancing the benefits system with a stronger universal pillar.
  • Improving financial work incentives.

However, these principles do not cover the look and feel of a reformed social security system. To cap the interviews, we explored which principles the women felt were key to reform. They agree that reform must ensure social security provides adequate support, targeted to those most in need. Such support would include tailored measures to help individuals moving into work, such as appropriate training, job placement assistance, and easier access to good childcare.

On the interaction with the DWP, the women call for the immediate overhaul of conditionality and sanctions, promoting a fairer approach that listens and learns from the experience of those navigating the system every day. A fairer system would help lift them from the clutches of poverty and restore the autonomy many of the women feel is missing from their lives. Key to achieving this aim is effective communication between the DWP and people in need of support, simplifying the claimant experience and widening eligibility to create a strong safety net for everyone.

The biggest worry in life is financial, isn’t it? So, to know you’ve got that financial security would be massive, it’d be absolutely massive. It would make things a lot better for everyone, not just for me, for everyone. Woman, mid-30s, one child, UC and DLA recipient

Image: iStock

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