Written by Alex Sims
A week after the government scrapped a £20-a-week uplift to Universal Credit, Stylist explores why the decision is set to hit women hardest.
As soon as Anne* realised her Universal Credit payments were being cut she knew she had to make sacrifices. To make sure she would have enough money to see her through the winter and feed her son, the 29-year-old single mother of one decided to sell her car.
“My car was one of my main luxuries,” Anne tells Stylist. Without it, she’ll struggle to take her son to swimming classes or travel to see her family. “But to afford to feed us, I have to do what I have to do.”
Just like Anne, millions of people now face making devastating choices after a temporary £20-a-week uplift to Universal Credit (UC) was scrapped last week. Put in place by the government to help people struggling with the economic turbulence of the pandemic, the loss of the uplift could see people’s incomes drop by as much as £1,000, and has been described as the “biggest overnight cut to the basic rate of social security since World War II”.
“You might think £20 a week isn’t a lot of money, but it’s actually made a huge difference,” Victoria Benson, CEO at Gingerbread, a charity for single-parent families, tells Stylist. “We hear from our callers that it’s one or two weeks money for food and, in worst-case scenarios, it will mean people choosing between eating or using their gas and electricity.”
Universal Credit attempted to simplify the UK’s welfare system by replacing six existing benefits with one overall payment. However, since being rolled out in 2013, its faced consistent backlash.
Scores of people, including footballer and anti-child poverty activist Marcus Rashford, food writer Jack Monroe, charities, religious groups and politicians, have attacked the decision to scrap the uplift which coincides with worries over rising food and fuel prices this winter as well as the winding up of the furlough scheme.
Around 5.9 million people in England, Scotland and Wales currently claim Universal Credit – 40% of whom are in employment – and while they will face increased hardship from the latest cuts, many charities and campaigners stress that women are set to be one of the groups hit hardest by the drastic drop in income.
As of July 2021, 53% of the people receiving Universal Credit were women. Figures reported in the Independent from the debt charity StepChange show a disproportionally high number of women asking for help with their debts over the pandemic. Around three in five of all the charity’s clients in 2020 were women. In recent months, seven in 10 of their new clients who’ve been on Universal Credit were female.
“Removing £20 a week will almost double the proportion of female StepChange clients claiming Universal Credit who, even after expert budgeting advice, will have outgoings exceeding their income, rendering them significantly more financially vulnerable,” Fahmida Rahman, senior public policy advocate, tells Stylist. “If we are to help people recover from the effects of the pandemic, these are exactly the sort of measures the government should be avoiding.”
The government’s work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, has argued that scrapping the uplift will encourage people to get back into work as the economy opens up. “£20 a week is about two hours’ extra work every week,” she told BBC Breakfast, adding that the government will “help people […] secure those extra hours” or “make sure they’re in a place to get better-paid jobs.”
However, charities and campaigners say the nature of many women’s situations means recouping the lost money isn’t as simple as gaining extra work. Women are significantly more likely to be single parents, to be victims of domestic abuse or to work in sectors such as care and retail which are significantly underfunded or pay low wages; all situations which make women more likely to turn to Universal Credit for more reasons than simply a lack of employment.
“We’re framing the economic impacts of the pandemic as if they are gender-neutral. Whereas it is clear as day to me, and all the data shows, that women are being disproportionately affected,” says Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party.
“Women are the poorest half of the population; the majority of Universal Credit claimants are women. We’re going to see some really, really tough, difficult and challenging experiences for huge numbers of women across the country.”
But, with the cuts now underway, what does this mean for women facing an immediate loss of up to 10% of their income?
Support for survivors
When Rachel* packed her bags and was finally able to leave her abusive ex-partner, she presumed her future would be brighter. Originally from overseas, Rachel married a British man who was physically, sexually, emotionally, and economically abusive, spending her earnings on himself and then gaslighting her about money.
“I thought the worst was behind me when I left him, in that I didn’t have to be subjected to abuse on a daily basis,” she tells Stylist. “But actually, I don’t think I could have been more wrong.”
After a long and arduous process of being granted settled status in the UK, Rachel began the “nightmare” of dealing with the benefit system. After filling in reams of complex online forms, being forced to repeat graphic details of the abuse she’d experienced to Job Centre staff and being threatened with sanctions in error, Rachel says the scrapping of the Universal Credit uplift is “absolutely horrific”.
“The £20 per week uplift has been better than nothing – it’s what I’ve been spending on food. The rest of my benefit goes toward rent and essential utilities, so I’m not sure what I’m meant to cut now,” she says.
“I already don’t buy fresh fruit and veg or anything too perishable because I can’t afford to waste any food. I know it’s having a negative impact on my physical health.
“I feel the pinch of the system all the time. I’m disabled and cannot work. The amount I’m receiving [with the uplift and the results of a work capability assessment] is still not enough to cover my basic essentials. I’m already short every month.
“I feel incredibly stressed and very, very worried, especially with energy costs increasing. My energy company hasn’t collapsed yet, but I’ve got a fixed rate, so if it does, I honestly don’t know what I’ll do. I’ve not been putting the heating on, but I know I’ll have to in later months. Trying to pull that money from thin air is going to be virtually impossible.”
According to Refuge, a charity providing specialist support for women and children experiencing domestic violence, over 37% of domestic abuse survivors supported by the charity from September 2019 to August 2020 were receiving Universal Credit. For survivors who accessed the charity’s emergency accommodation, it rose to just over 63%.
For many domestic abuse survivors, Universal Credit is a lifeline that can help them flee abuse. Refuge worry that scrapping the £20 uplift could leave women in unsafe situations.
“Refuge has seen a surge in cases of domestic abuse in the last 18 months and Universal Credit is a lifeline for survivors who are trying to rebuild their lives, and flee abuse, often at a huge emotional and financial cost,” Ruth Davison, Refuge chief executive officer, said in a statement. “We have concerns scrapping the £20 uplift will push already vulnerable women and children further into poverty and worryingly may mean some women have to make the difficult choice between staying with an abusive partner or being unable to provide for themselves and their children.”
“Having access to Universal Credit is a lifeline,” says Rachel. “I know from personal experience that financial independence is crucial for so many survivors. Without access to appropriate levels of support, it means that survivors are forced to stay with their abusive partners because they can’t afford to leave.
“It seems incredibly callous and cruel to scrap this uplift at a time when the cost of living is rising exponentially.”
A strain for single parents
Around 90% of single parents are women and 60% of all single parents receive Universal Credit, making them one of the largest groups of claimants. Some 1.1 million single parents gained the £20-a-week uplift when it was introduced and now stand to be some of the hardest-hit by the cuts.
Even after selling her car, Anne still worries about money: “Universal Credit did help me. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to afford things, but giving someone money and then taking it away from them; it’s like taking food from your child’s mouth.”
Anne, who lives in St Helens, started claiming Universal Credit when she found out she was pregnant in 2019. She has looked after her 22-month-old son on her own over the pandemic and is now self-employed after struggling to find jobs flexible enough to fit around caring for him.
“I suffer from anxiety,” she says. “I worry about putting the heating on with the prices for gas and electric going up. My rent’s just gone up too and it gets to the point where you’re scared of opening bills and seeing how much you owe.
“People think because you’re on benefits you don’t want to work, but it’s not as easy as that when you’ve had a child. I feel like I’m being punished because I’m a single parent.”
Even before the uplift cut came into effect, single parent charity Gingerbread saw an uptick in calls to its helplines. “Callers are really worried about how to feed their families, how they will buy clothes for babies who are growing and how they will pay their bills,” says Benson, who is herself a single mother of six. “Some are thinking they will go without food themselves in order to feed their children.”
Benson dismisses the idea that single parents can simply work extra hours in order to recoup the £20-a-week: “Often, single parents are worse off when they work more hours because of all the other costs they have to pay, like childcare. It can mean they are often forced into very low paid jobs or jobs well beneath their skills level.”
“Removing the uplift is immoral,” she says. “We know from our studies that single parents were more likely to have increased their debt levels over the pandemic. Already we are seeing single parents going to food banks and a big proportion of them turning to Shelter [housing and homeless charity] for housing advice. It’s going to be a desperately hard winter for single parents.”
Even before the pandemic hit, women were already overrepresented in low-paid, precarious work with zero-hours contracts. Now, studies have shown that Covid has disproportionately hit women’s careers, with women more likely to work in jobs that have been decimated by lockdown.
One of the sector’s hardest hit during the pandemic is retail, and figures have shown that women, who make up nearly 60% of the British retail sector, are bearing the brunt of high street store closures during the pandemic.
Retail Trust, a charity that supports retail workers, said 75% of requests for the Trust’s help currently come from women retail workers. While an estimated 1.5 million young women have lost their income in the pandemic with many claiming benefits for the first time, according to the charity Young Women’s Trust.
After working in retail for five years, Gemma, 26, from Prudhoe, Northumberland, burst into floods of tears when she found out she was being made redundant on a group phone call in June last year.
She began claiming Universal Credit in the summer of 2020 to see her through the turbulence of the pandemic. A media graduate, Gemma spent the £20-a-week uplift on upkeeping an online blog and portfolio in the hope it would help her gain a job in the industry. Without the uplift, she’s afraid of denting her career prospects.
“It really, really annoys me when I hear [the government] say [the cuts] will motivate us to find a job,” she tells Stylist. “Losing money does not motivate me to get a job. For me, it’s actually going to affect my employability if I can’t show my work online.”
For Gemma, seeing the cuts to Universal Credit go through has been “hard and demoralising”. “I haven’t been out of the house for ages. I don’t go out now because I can’t afford it,” she says. “My life has gone right back to basics, which isn’t how anyone should live. I have no idea what my future plans are. I have no idea what’s coming and that is scary.”
Reid from the Women’s Equality Party argues that we need a total rethink of how we approach the economy. “If you look at almost any economic decision through the lens of gender, you stand a way better chance of making decisions that will protect our economy in the long run and allow a greater proportion of the population to fulfil their potential, contribute economically and thrive,” she tells Stylist.
“So much untapped potential that could help boost our economy and our prosperity is lost because women can’t participate in a way that allows their full talents and skills to be fully deployed. Gender should always be as a starting point for examining what economic choices to make at any juncture.”
The government reaction
Responding to the concerns about the impact of the Universal Credit cuts on women, a government spokesman told Stylist: “We’ve always been clear that the uplift to Universal Credit was temporary. It was designed to help claimants through the economic shock and financial disruption of the toughest stages of the pandemic, and it has done so.
“Universal Credit will continue to provide vital support for those both in and out of work and it’s right that the government should focus on our Plan for Jobs, supporting people back into work and supporting those already employed to progress and earn more.”
The government also added that vulnerable households across the country will have access to a new £500m support fund to help them with essentials over the coming months and that there is a range of Universal Credit measures designed to support victims of domestic abuse, including special provisions for temporary accommodation, same-day advances, easements from work-related requirements and signposting to expert third-party services.
However, campaigners, charities and many politicians continue to urge the government to restore the uplift. One hundred organisations have signed a letter urging the prime minister to reverse the cuts warning that cutting the £20 uplift ‘risk[s] causing immense, immediate, and avoidable hardship’. While in a debate on 12 October, many peers in the House of Lords urged the government to reconsider scrapping the uplift in the face of rising inflation, an increase to National Insurance, surging food and energy prices and a public sector pay freeze.
For Anne, who has started to worry about the cost of Christmas and how she will afford presents for her son, it’s important the government tries to understand what it’s like to be in her shoes right now: “I don’t think the government really understands what it’s like for women and single parents right now.
“I just hope that they start listening to us.”
If you are affected by domestic abuse you can access free and confidential support from Refuge’s 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 and digital support via live chat Monday-Friday 3pm-10pm via www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk.
Images: Getty/Panpreeda Mahaly / EyeEm
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