Has the pandemic shone a light on income disparities in the UK?

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented restrictions being placed on the everyday lives of people in the UK. Social distancing guidelines have meant that we have been unable to go wherever we want, or meet and see people in large social gatherings. These changes have been easier for some than others, as demonstrated by the regular ‘anti-lockdown’ protests in cities and towns across the country. While for most people the last 14 months have been a steep learning curve, people with disabilities and long-term health conditions, and their carers, are well accustomed to experiencing limits on their mobility, struggling to get access to essential services and juggling caring responsibilities with work. Many are also too familiar with the struggles of living on a low budget and navigating a complicated benefits system.

There were initial signs that the pandemic had illuminated the experiences of disabled people in the ‘old normal’, especially during the first lockdown period. One key area was regarding the social welfare system. There was an increase of 2.7 million people (90%) claiming Universal Credit (UC) between 12 March 2020 and 8 October 2020, and a doubling of the number of UC payments in London and the surrounding regions. As more people came into contact with the benefits system for the first time, many of the problems experienced by legacy benefit claimants (such as tax credits) and UC became more widely recognised. Most notably, it was not well-known that the first UC payment is typically made 5 weeks from the initial claim. 

There had also been a widespread assumption among many people that benefits had become ‘too generous’, fuelled by government and media framing during the ‘austerity’ drive to reduce government spending by shrinking the welfare state. This was seen in 2010 when then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne justified further cuts because some people “believe that living on benefits is a lifestyle choice” so what is needed is “[a] welfare state where it always pays to work”. However, with wider demographic claiming UC there has been broad recognition that benefit rates are much lower than average incomes. Until March 2020, a single person aged over 25 received a ‘standard allowance’ of £317.82 per month (pm) UC, or £498.89pm for a couple (help with rent is an additional application and is capped at a set local rate). In comparison, the median weekly income for full time employees was £586 per week (pw) in April 2020, and the national minimum wage at £8.72ph (age 25+). In response to political and public pressure on the level of support being provided by the government, the current Chancellor Rishi Sunak increased the UC standard allowance by £20 pw resulting in a single person over 25 now getting standard allowance of £409.89 pm, and a couple £594.04 pm. While this narrowed the gap, it is still a substantial difference especially when recent ONS figures show that the cost of living under the consumer price index continues to rise, with inflation growing from 0.3% in November to 0.6% in December 2020 (due to an increase in clothing, transport and petrol prices). The Joseph Rountree Foundation also found that if the £20pw uplift is withdrawn at the same time as the furlough scheme ends, 500,000 extra people (including 200,000 children) would be pulled into poverty. Moreover, the decision to increase these benefits was a tacit admission by the government that it was difficult for people to live on the initial rate.

While the increases in UC and tax credits were welcomed by many, there remain 2.5 million people on legacy benefits such as Employment Support Allowance (ESA). The majority of these claimants are disabled or have long-term health conditions, whose exclusion from this uplift is currently being challenged by way of judicial review in the courts. Furthermore, government statistics show that before the pandemic the proportion of disabled people living in poverty was 23% before housing costs (BHC), and 27% after housing costs (AHC), compared to 15% and 19% respectively for families without a disabled person. However, this does not take into account the additional costs that having a disability or long-term health condition entails. The Social Networks Commission found that half of all people in poverty (7.2 million people) live with someone who has a disability, and while 17% of families live in poverty this rises to 28% for disabled families. 

Why does the government continue to discriminate against disabled people when it comes to welfare provision? At the start of the pandemic everyone was told to stay at home to protect the most ‘vulnerable’, NHS volunteers were sought to provide additional help and mutual aid groups sprang up to help those most in need within local communities. However, no additional money was allocated, there was little to no protection for care homes, and working age disabled people were often not given priority to health services or vaccinations. Now that everything is being unlocked as part of the government’s ‘roadmap’, disabled people are once more feeling left behind and disregarded. While we were previously hopeful that the pandemic might produce long-term empathy towards those with disabilities (especially of working age), a return to the ‘old normal’ of indifference and, in some cases, hostility appears more likely.

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