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27 November 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 9:52am

“I’ve never relied on anyone in my life”: Covid-19 and the new Universal Credit claimants

Millions of people are entering the benefits system for first time.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Every month during the pandemic, Emily Pringle has sold different items from her work wardrobe on eBay: shoes, suits and dresses from smart women’s clothing brands like Phase Eight and Mint Velvet. She has now sold every single item of work wear she had. Everything from her “old life”.

Pringle, 44, who lives in Cheltenham, was until recently a successful businesswoman earning six figures. In 2011-2016 she was a director at Mars and had contracts with other consumer goods companies for years afterwards, including the confectionary multinational Mondelēz in 2019.

Yet since March this year, for the first time in her working life, she had “five months of earning absolutely nothing”, and only earned below £500 a month in the remaining three. The only other income she has is £691 of Universal Credit to which she is entitled as a single mother, and “not anywhere near what I need” of disability benefits.

After a car accident gave her a permanent brain injury two years ago, Pringle eventually had to leave her fast-paced industry. Instead, in October last year, she set up her own company – a divorce consultancy – so that she could work her own hours according to her physical ability. The plan was to cover her outgoings (which were then “those of a six figure salary”) by running her own business.

“You can go from perfectly comfortable to having absolutely nothing overnight”

She first accessed Universal Credit in January, before the pandemic, in an arrangement to support her as her new business got off the ground.

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Yet when coronavirus hit, it was the first time in Pringle’s life that she had to rely solely on benefits. Her hours dried up as she failed to win new business: she couldn’t go out and meet clients, and people didn’t want to discuss personal matters of their divorces without meeting face-to-face.

She is not eligible for the government’s self-employment income support scheme – the furlough equivalent for freelancers – because limited company directors like her are excluded, and she also only began working for herself after the 2018-19 tax year cut-off.

Three million taxpayers are thought to be missing out on Covid-19 financial support, according to the ExcludedUK campaign group.

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For six months, she made use of the mortgage holiday granted to homeowners by the government during the crisis, but that has since ended.

In June, she had to ask a local charity for food donations. She cancelled her pet insurance in April, and could not afford a scan when her cat fell ill last week. “I found myself sat outside the emergency vets at Cheltenham racecourse, thinking ‘this is going to come down to a call on money’. It was awful.”

Last month, she put her house on the market – a particularly tough decision as her autistic six-year-old daughter struggles profoundly with change. Now, she asks her mother why she has to eat own-brand cereal, can’t have Marmite on her toast, or buy a magazine from the shop.

“I can’t afford it,” Pringle says. “When she says to me, ‘but I could use my pocket money mummy, which I’ve saved up’, that’s what breaks your heart.”

[see also: The lost children of lockdown]

“I was massively successful, I’ve never relied on anyone in my life”

When her daughter is staying with her father, Pringle does not buy food, eat meals, or heat the house. “I try and make it as normal as possible for her – the pressure is immense.”

Each month, her outgoings are £2,700 (“and that’s before I even breathe”), and she currently only has enough money in her account to make one more mortgage payment, of £1,300. She has yet to find a buyer for her house. Her daughter’s birthday is the week before Christmas, and she cannot afford a present – instead, she is considering melting down her wedding ring to make her a piece of jewellery.

“I was massively successful, I’ve never relied on anyone in my life,” she says. “It really does bring it home to you that you can go from perfectly comfortable to having absolutely nothing overnight. And that is really terrifying.”

***

Since Covid-19 began spreading in the UK, 3.6m new people have started claiming Universal Credit. Although lower-paid people have been hit hardest by the impact of the pandemic, there is evidence that a more affluent demographic are coming into contact with the benefit system for the first time.

Before the crisis, just 10 per cent of Universal Credit claimants who were in work were in the top fifth of earners – a proportion that rose to 14 per cent at the start of the crisis, according to Karl Handscomb, a senior economist who specialises in welfare at the Resolution Foundation think tank. There was also a rise from 9 per cent to 15 per cent in the second highest earning bracket.

“That’s quite a big shift of higher-earning people moving onto Universal Credit,” he says.

Housing also reveals this trend. Before the crisis, around 20 per cent of existing claimants were a homeowner with a mortgage – a proportion that has risen to 31 per cent. The same goes for private renters, with around a fifth existing benefit claimants renting in the private sector rising to a third after Covid-19 (showing a growing proportion of non-social housing tenants accessing the system).

“There’s a big shift of higher-earning people moving onto Universal Credit”

“New UC claimants in our survey have, on average, higher earnings and more savings than existing benefit recipients,” found a Resolution Foundation report in May 2020.

New claimants since the start of the pandemic are more likely to come from the managerial, administrative and professional occupations, at 26 per cent compared with 15 per cent of existing claimants, according to the University of Salford’s Welfare At A Social Distance research project’s September report “Who are the new COVID-19 cohort of benefit claimants?”.

Also, almost a third (32 per cent) of new claimants have a university diploma or above, compared with 26 per cent of existing claimants.

“Even if temporary, it is clear that the labour market disruption instigated by Covid-19 has led to a considerable change in the socioeconomic profile of those currently claiming working-age social security benefits,” the report states.

Unsuccessful benefit claimants in this period tell the same story. The most common reason for having a claim blocked in this time was a failure to meet eligibility criteria: 45 per cent of applicants earned too much or their partner’s salary was too high (Universal Credit is calculated based on household income), and 24 per cent had savings above the threshold of £16,000, according to the Welfare At A Social Distance research project’s October report “At the edge of the safety net”.

The number of Universal Credit claims that were rejected because the applicant had too many savings was ten times higher in March 2020, when the lockdown came in, than last year, according to a Freedom of Information request reported by the i newspaper in September.

***

When England’s poorest communities have suffered more than twice as many deaths from Covid-19 as its richest, public sympathy may not naturally lie with people who own houses and have savings to fall back on.

Yet the picture is not that simple. Many self-employed people – 1.6m of whom are missing out on Covid-19 support, according to ExcludedUK – accrue savings to pay their tax bill at the end of the year, for example, and face running down their savings in order to qualify for benefits.

In contrast, millions of employees have been protected from redundancy and kept 80 per cent of their salaries through the furlough scheme – with no requirement to declare, or dip into, their savings. If you are excluded from such support, no matter your personal circumstances, Universal Credit alone is a raw deal by comparison.

“Universal Credit is barely anything when you’re used to a certain lifestyle – it’s a big shock”

In any case, once people from better-off circumstances than the average claimant are in the position to qualify for benefits, they are no longer enjoying the same hours, wages or savings pot as they once were.

This impact is becoming clear in public attitudes towards Universal Credit. Some 77 per cent of people who failed to claim Universal Credit because they or their partner earned too much, or their savings were too high, perceived the rejection as unfair, according to the Welfare At A Social Distance research project.

“On the whole, the benefits system is set up as a minimum income level, a safety net – it is not there to give people a cushion relative to the size of their incomes beforehand,” says Handscomb. “It can lead to quite large income falls for people who have lost their job during the crisis.”

***

Lucy Hunter, 35, a hair and make-up artist who was head of department for West End shows such as Aladdin last year, is experiencing this drop in income. After 13 years working full-time in theatre, she was earning around £50,000 a year, and her partner worked on lighting in West End theatres.

Last September, in order to spend more time with her children aged two and five, she went freelance – successfully getting lucrative film and theatre jobs while doing hair and make-up for weddings on the side. She lost all her work in March.

Now, she has around £2,000 worth of savings, £370 a month on Universal Credit, and her partner’s minimum wage salary – he now works as a lorry driver. She isn’t eligible for the self-employment grant because she only went freelance after the last tax year. They took the mortgage break but are facing higher payments at the end of it. She has started making wigs and selling them on Etsy to bring some money in.

“People are getting richer and then others are getting poorer”

She says her family is best described as the “squeezed middle”. They have never had a “posh, lavish lifestyle” even when they had disposable income. “We don’t go on nice holidays or buy nice things for the house, I’ve never had the luxuries or been a show-off buying designer things, I’ve always tried to be good with my money.”

Nevertheless, her family has “struggled” with only benefits to rely on. “The Universal Credit does help a little bit towards bills and everything, but it’s barely anything and when you’re used to a certain lifestyle and have things to pay for – it’s a big shock.”

“Even after paying taxes, it goes to show you haven’t got the support behind you thought you had”

There is a hole in their ceiling after a leak, their bath is broken and carpets are torn, but they cannot afford to get anything fixed. Others in her circle who are theatre and film staffers, or have been freelancing longer than her, are being supported by the furlough scheme and self-employment grants respectively.

“I see these people who have got so much money they’re getting renovations done,” she says. “People are getting richer and then others are getting poorer. It’s just so wrong. People are in much worse situations than me; I know people who have lost everything.”

Hunter would like parity of support for people like her with others who qualify for the self-employment support. “I don’t think they’re being fair to all these millions of people who have paid their dues over the years and have just been left behind.”

***

Newcomers to the system from previously comfortable backgrounds are discovering – like existing claimants – how miserable Universal Credit can be, and wondering what they are receiving in return for their taxes.

“I’ve paid over half a million pounds in tax in the last 20 years,” Pringle tells me. “It goes to show you haven’t got the support behind you thought you had.”

Hunter says: “I’ve worked and paid my taxes my whole life, I’ve gone to college, I’ve trained, I’ve had the higher national diploma, I’ve worked my way up through my career, gone freelance successfully, just to be left behind.”

Indeed, one Universal Credit call handler (who wishes to remain anonymous) tells me this sentiment is becoming increasingly common during calls about claims.

“They say ‘I’ve worked, I’ve paid taxes all my life, I’ve done all this, this isn’t right’,” they tell me. “It’s quite common now for people to be like: ‘Oh, I’m not one of those people who’s on benefits, you know.’ You try and explain to them that they wouldn’t be speaking to me unless they were.”

“It is a significant problem in towns, particularly in the home counties”

The average increase in Universal Credit claimants per UK constituency from last year to October 2020 is 2,198. A number of Conservative constituencies rank well over the average: Hendon, Finchley & Golders Green, Crawley, Peterborough, Harrow East, Thurrock, Milton Keynes North, Northampton South, Chipping Barnet, Milton Keynes South, Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Watford, Kensington, Chingford and Woodford Green, Bournemouth East, Bournemouth West, Rochford & Southend East, Southampton Itchen, Colchester, Romford and Wycombe have at least 550 more new Universal Credit households than the UK average.

A spike in the number of renters claiming benefits during the first six months of the pandemic also reveals how many voters in Tory areas are discovering Universal Credit.

Comparing the number of private renter households in receipt of Local Housing Allowance (through Universal Credit or Housing Benefit) in February 2020 and August 2020 in England shows an average 38 per cent rise in people turning to benefits for help with rent in Conservative constituencies, according to exclusive data analysis shared with the New Statesman by Generation Rent. (The England-wide average is 36 per cent).

Of Conservative constituencies, the biggest rise was in Hendon, north London, at 2,594 new households, and 17 Conservative constituencies with majorities below 5,000 saw an increase of over 1,000 privately renting households turning to benefits: Kensington, Wimbledon, Cheltenham, Chipping Barnet, Chingford & Woodford Green, Wolverhampton Southwest, Peterborough, Lincoln, Blackpool South, Cities of London & Westminster, Hastings & Rye, Wycombe, Hendon, Eastbourne, Watford, Southampton Itchen, and Northampton South.

“I supported Theresa May, but far as I’m concerned, they’ve behaved despicably”

“While cities have borne the brunt of this, this research shows that it is a significant problem in towns, particularly in the home counties, where 40 per cent more private renters are now receiving Local Housing Allowance than in February,” says Dan Wilson Craw, deputy director of Generation Rent.

“We’re also seeing a trend of Londoners who can work from home moving out of the city to enjoy more space for less money, and the stamp duty holiday is helping this along. Those households are increasing competition for housing, pushing up rents and house prices for people already living there.”

These two factors could put pressure on the government in future elections to make renting fairer and benefits more generous, particularly in the aforementioned constituencies.

Pringle, who lives in the 981-majority Tory seat of Cheltenham – a growing prospect for the Lib Dems – was “never really into politics” before Brexit, when she became supportive of then prime minister Theresa May, backing her for “trying to do what the people voted for”.

[see also: Anoosh Chakelian on the Universal Credit design flaw that leaves people penniless]

Her experience during Covid-19, however, has changed her view. “I acknowledge that people have to make decisions, because I used to be on the leadership team of a blue chip company,” she says. “But when you get it wrong, you admit mistakes, try and fix it, listen to people, that’s how you lead. But as far as I’m concerned, they’ve behaved despicably.

“Coming from a high-earning management position, I find it really, really hard to stomach, because it makes me really angry. It frustrates the hell out of me.”

Hunter, who lives in Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick’s constituency of Newark, has always voted and voted Conservative in the last election. But this year has changed her view of the government “100 per cent”, finding ministers “on the TV and news always gloss over” people left out of support.

“I voted Conservative in the last election, but I’ve really lost my faith”

“I’ve really lost my faith massively,” she says. “I know it’s strange circumstances, and any government would’ve struggled. But I do feel really bitter about it to the point where I’m done with them, I don’t want to vote anymore.”

The government’s encouragement of people to retrain or switch jobs felt particularly tin-eared. “Just changing my career now is fine but who’s going to look after my children? Are they going to pay for my childcare? No they’re not. The wage at Morrissons won’t pay for it. I can’t go and retrain as Rishi [Sunak] or whoever else says! It’s so frustrating.”

As the anonymous Universal Credit call handler puts it: “The sort of people I think are enrolled on Universal Credit now are electorally much more powerful than the people you see normally.”

[see also: People work for weeks unpaid in “abhorrent practice” hidden by a gap in DWP data]

Update 10.41am 30/11/20:

This article was updated with the findings from the Welfare At A Social Distance research project’s September report “Who are the new COVID-19 cohort of benefit claimants?”

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