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The UK Welfare System: A Leaking Bucket?

14.4 million people in the United Kingdom are living in poverty, including 4.2 million children, which equates to 1 in 3. 

These sobering statistics are further highlighted by the Joseph Roundtree Foundation, which reported a 61% increase in the number of people experiencing destitution from 2019 to 2022. The situation is even more dire for children; since 2017, the number of children facing destitution has risen by 186%. Destitution is defined by the inability to meet the most basic needs — being able to stay warm, dry, clean, and fed. 

The UK's escalating poverty crisis hasn't gone unnoticed; a United Nations envoy, Olivier De Schutter, recently criticised the UK government for violating international human rights law due to its 'grossly insufficient' universal credit payments. His remarks resonate with his predecessor, Philip Alston, who, five years earlier, described a 'systemic immiseration' of the British populace — a consequence of a faltering welfare state. However, UK ministers have repeatedly dismissed these reports as 'barely believable', countering with claims that the UK is one of the happiest places in the world to live – a contention contradicted by research placing the UK 15th, behind 12 other European countries.

De Schutter metaphorically compared the UK welfare system to 'a leaking bucket', an apt analogy. Particularly when considering that 90% of low-income households who are on benefits cannot afford essentials, unfortunately, can we be surprised? Research has shown that a single adult needs at least £120 a week to afford the essentials, but universal credit is set at £85 a week. Amidst the current cost-of-living crisis, the basic rate of universal credit is at its lowest ever level when compared to average earnings, representing just 13% of the average UK earnings. This is one of the lowest income replacement rates amongst OECD countries. Expecting the central welfare state to ensure everyone can meet basic life essentials should not be an unreasonable assumption.

The 'systematic' aspect of the British population's 'immiseration' has been evidenced in the multitude of studies that link inadequate income support and increasing the barriers to finding employment. People grappling with deprivation, homelessness, and social exclusion are less likely and less capable of finding employment. Furthermore, inadequate income support means individuals may struggle to afford costs associated with job hunting, such as travel expenses.

Dominic Cummings' 2017 assertion that 'Tory MPs largely do not care about poor people' may be becoming increasingly difficult to refute. Recent events seem to reinforce this perception. For instance, two weeks ago, when MP Alex Cunningham asked in Prime Ministers Question's why 34% of children in his constituency are living in poverty, the Home Secretary James Cleverly reportedly responded, 'because it's a shithole'. 

The government's indifference was also made apparent in its response to Marcus Rashford's Free School Meals campaign in 2020. Despite widespread public support, 321 MPs voted to defeat this motion, with only 5 Conservative MPs dissenting. Brenden Clarke-Smith, MP for Bassetlaw, who voted against the extension, said we cannot 'nationalise children' and instead return to the idea of personal responsibility. Other MPs who defeated the motion raised concerns over whether parents could be trusted to refrain from using food stamps. Whether providing meals for children in struggling families or swapping drugs for a food stamp is possible is up for debate. 

Considering this, it's unsurprising that only 2% of MPs rank poverty and inequality as their top priority. Whilst it's reassuring that 70% say the cost of living crisis is at the top, addressing the current inflation and cost of living crisis barely scratches the surface in addressing the systemic issues that plague the UK welfare system.

As the BSA found, the perception of benefits and recipients has substantially changed. Support for the idea that people who receive benefits don't really deserve any help is at its lowest since the question was first asked in 1987. Simultaneously, there has been a rise in those who believe unemployment benefits are too low and cause hardship and that they should be increased despite prospects of higher taxes. 

As more people fall into poverty whilst working and being supported by the current UK welfare system, Olivier De Schutter's comparison to a leaking bucket is becoming increasingly credible. The time for recognising and addressing these systemic failures at the heart of the UK's social security net is long overdue.

Image: Getty Images/via The Gaurdian

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1 Comment

Nice article.

I have doubts about the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. They emphasise "inclusive growth".


Growth screws the climate. Better to take from the polluting affluent to support the poor.

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