Universal Credit – don’t bank on support if you’re partnered
Barely a day goes by without another headline confirming the dire state of the UK economy at present. From well-known high street store closures to rising interest rates and unaffordable mortgages, not to mention the ever-increasing cost of our utilities and food. Things are tough, and many of us are barely hanging on by a thread, and it’s often claimed that it’s those in the middle that are feeling the pinch the most.
Bevan Foundation research published in September paints a solemn picture of the pressures facing families across Wales, with one in four of us eating smaller meals or skipping meals entirely, and an alarming 45% of respondents to their survey report detrimental impacts to their mental health due to their current financial situation.
There’s a certain reassurance many of us have that, should we fall on hard times, we can at least rely on Universal Credit – a payment from the UK Government designed to help those those who are out of work or unable to work, as well as those on low incomes.
What many don’t realise, however, is that claimants who live with their partners are required to make joint Universal Credit applications. This means that, regardless of your marital status, your joint income is taken into consideration, with the system assuming that partners are willing or able to share their income if, as happens all too often, claims are refused in their entirety because of the financial position of a working partner.
The Health Foundation found that over 220,000 claims that were made for Universal Credit at the onset of the Covid pandemic were unsuccessful – and 35% of those claims were rejected based on the income or savings of a partner.
Charities have repeatedly called for changes to the system which can leave the most vulnerable among us open to financial abuse. And for young people just starting out together or those with a controlling partner for example, a job loss is devastating enough as it is – imagine the shock of being told to rely on someone else to pay rent or to put food on the table.
Gareth, from Cardigan, applied for Universal Credit back in the summer after moving to the area to be with his partner, and was surprised to have his claim rejected.
He said, ‘As I’ve only been with my partner for the best part of a year, our finances are completely separate, so upon applying for Universal Credit I was instantly surprised to see that the claim would have to be a joint one. My partner is on quite a high wage, and is fortunate enough to have savings, and this led to my claim being rejected’.
He continued, ‘Being without employment was tough enough without having to ask my partner to financially support me, which I wasn’t prepared to do. It felt to me like a punishment for being in a relationship and left me feeling very worried and anxious until I thankfully got back on my feet and into work again.’
Potential claimants are also put off by the amount of red tape, and the lack of clarity around eligibility. Indeed, some 2.3 million people who claim Universal Credit are recorded as being employed, with many eligible people simply unaware of their right to claim while, conversely, many are struggling to survive on low wages but are ineligible for the same support their colleagues receive simply because they live with a partner.
As it stands, the system encourages couples to live separately, often in social housing, in order to protect themselves from the punitive measures imposed on those with a working partner, or those whose cumulative income meets an arbitrary threshold decided upon long before the current economic crisis.
With Rishi Sunak refusing to rule out a real-terms benefits cut in the autumn statement, it’s clear that the benefits system isn’t fit for the UK as a whole, let alone Wales. Indeed, the Bevan Foundation has made repeated calls for a Welsh Benefits System, one with a clearer strategic focus that is fairer and less complex – an initial aim of the Universal Credit system that hasn’t been as successful as intended. They also argue that a devolved system would allow the Welsh Government to develop a more coherent anti-poverty strategy in Wales.
For the time being, however, we are all faced with navigating a system that seems to reward some, and to completely ignore the desperate need of others – especially those who rightly declare their true relationship status. We all deserve better.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.