The Welfare Wall

Janice Blenkinsopp,  PhD student

To date assessments of the current UK welfare reforms have generally been ‘static’ and examine the consequences of each reform in isolation.  Impacts are then often overstated and fail to analyse how reforms will inter-act with one another. They also fail to take account of the way people affected by the reforms may change their behaviour in order to mitigate their consequences.

Significant welfare reforms affecting both social and private tenants are being introduced as a result of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. The “21st Century Welfare” consultation document of July 2010 set out the Coalition Government’s reasons for its reforms.  It argued the system was unwieldy, costly and unfit for purpose. It also argued that there is a: “failure of the current system to generate positive behavioural effects”, stating that claimants were too reliant on benefits. ‘Worklessness’ was said to have strong links with poverty and therefore reduced well-being by detrimentally affecting both physical and mental health.  Moreover, the Government also asserted that ‘worklessness’ increased the chances of ending up in prison. (p10)

The government estimates that £18 billion will be saved by an amalgam of welfare reforms by 2015.   With one of the main targets Housing Benefit in the social rented sector, my earlier research analysed how Housing Associations and their tenants would fare through these sweeping changes.  My findings suggested that Housing Association saw the reforms as a risk to business, particularly due to loss of income in the short and medium term.  However, the Associations had a positive view of their abilities to manage change around Welfare Reform, but, none were positive as to how their tenants would fare.

Working as a rights advice practitioner, I was able to offer an insight into the monetary losses of the tenant due to reforms. Although it was useful to understand how these changes affected income, little analysis was possible as to what the eventual outcomes would be, or how individuals would and could mitigate and respond to these sometimes huge reductions in monies.  It was also unknown whether one of the overall objectives of the reforms could be realised, i.e. to increase employment through greater conditionality and sanction of benefits and by reducing the ‘unemployment trap’ which is argued to produce a disincentive to work.  The ‘unemployment trap’ is stated to be produced as the withdrawal rate of benefits may be higher than any net gain of income from taking work (Hills 2007:20).  The new Universal Credit, encompassing all in and out of work means-tested benefits, including costs for housing, has one single withdrawal rate and the government  suggest this will reduce the impacts of the ‘unemployment trap’ as analysed by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (2013) here.

My new research will seek to establish the housing and employment impacts of these reforms as they inter-act with one another, on young people aged 18 – 35 years of age. Central and southern Scotland has been chosen for the main area of study, as impact assessments have highlighted that Scotland has higher dependence on welfare benefits than rest of Great Britain per capita (Scottish Government 2012).  Although benefit legislation is GB wide, responses and strategies of those affected may vary across the country and vary geographically such as with urban and rural situations, making this a useful comparative study.  An examination of the provision of support in these areas, and how this may affect strategies to cope with reforms will also be undertaken.

Research will also explore the effects on incomes and wider well-being of this group as a result of the reforms as highlighted earlier.  In this respect I am keen to experiment with ‘vignettes’. This method involves presenting scenarios of possible policy changes or other scenarios to interviewees, to try to establish what their behavioural reaction to them might be.  Elsinga (2011) gives fine examples of the vignette method (p366), including the types of scenario and following questions she used within her recent comparative European study into housing wealth.  Vignette methodology has also been utilised to great effect in Fitzpatrick and Stephens (2013) recent major European comparative study relating to responses to marginalised groups affected by homelessness. The authors state that: “…the hypothetical yet recognisable nature of the scenarios provides a ‘safe space’ within which sensitive issues can be explored” (Fitzpatrick and Stephens 2013: 6).  My hope is that this innovation will help to reduce one of the main problems with predicting the impact of welfare reforms – we do not know how people affected will react to them.

Janice Blenkinsopp is a full-time, 1st year, Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded student.  Starting her PhD in October 2013 with IHURER, she also completed her MSc in Housing and Regeneration at Heriot-Watt University with her research into Welfare Reform. 

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(Front page image by Jim Derby, provided under a Wikimedia Creative Commons Licence)