Lost your job or income as a result of Covid-19? Living with a partner? You may get nothing from Universal Credit

Posted in: COVID-19, Economics, UK politics, Universal Credit, Welfare and social security

Dr Rita Griffiths is a Research Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath. She is co-author of the recently published report, Uncharted Territory: Universal Credit, Couples and Money

Between March and June 2020, an unprecedented 3.3 million people made a ‘declaration’ for Universal Credit – meaning that they submitted an application for the benefit. Tributes have rightly been paid to Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff – thousands of whom were redeployed from the furthest reaches of the Department to help process the deluge of new claims as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

Neil Couling – Senior Responsible Officer for Universal Credit – declaredthe system has run beautifully … I'm pretty bullish on this, I think we're in a very good place." But as notifications of the amounts would-be claimants are due to receive have begun to hit their inboxes, up to a third  have received the worrying news that their application has either been  rejected, withdrawn or zero-rated. Some rejections relate to speculative applications, later withdrawn, due to the applicant’s eligibility for the government’s job retention scheme or the self-employment income support scheme. But one important reason why some claims fail is the joint means test. Most people probably realise that entitlement for means-tested benefits is dependent on income and earnings, but are not necessarily aware of what this means for couples. This is one of the issues that we have been exploring in our recently published research, which focuses specifically on couples claiming Universal Credit jointly.

Under the Universal Credit rules couples who live together have no right to individual treatment but are obliged to claim jointly, and are treated as a ‘benefit unit’, in which their needs, income and earnings are aggregated. This applies regardless of how long they have been living together, the nature of the relationship, or how they organise their finances.

So, if you find yourself unemployed, or have lost a large chunk of your earnings or income, but your partner is still working, or being supported by the government’s furlough or self-employed scheme, or you have combined savings of 16K or more, you may only be eligible for a contributory benefit based on your national insurance record. But if you know nothing about this benefit – and the recent bypassing of (new style) Jobseekers Allowance means that many people do not, or if you are not entitled to claim - and many low-paid and self-employed workers are not -  you will be obliged to turn to your partner for financial support.

The indignity and risk of enforced financial dependency on a partner was one of the key issues highlighted in our research. A similar issue was reported in a recent survey of applicants commissioned by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee exploring how the DWP is responding to the Coronavirus pandemic. And as Fran Bennett and others argue, a joint claim is an even riskier undertaking for those thinking of entering into the committed coupledom that the government is purportedly so keen to encourage.

Among couples whose combined savings and income are low enough to entitle them to Universal Credit, there is another sting in the tail. Many will be shocked to discover how little they get, as acknowledged by the DWP itself: people "may be surprised that it is not as much as they were expecting".  We certainly found this to be the case in our research. For those who had not claimed benefits before, the shockingly low amount of money the couple were expected to live on came as a nasty surprise.

With the temporary weekly uprating of £20 , the standard Universal Credit allowance for couples aged 25 and over is £594.04 per month, while for two single claimants it would be £819.78 (£409.89 per single claimant or lone parent) – a difference of around £225 each month. That joint claimants are entitled to a lower rate of benefit than double the amount two single claimants get is a feature of the wider means-tested benefit system and is intended to reflect the economies of scale that are assumed to occur when couples share the same household. But this only applies to couples, not housemates or other adult family members. They might also be expected to benefit from economies of scale, so the policy rationale is not consistent.

Many couples in our study also reported that there was a large gap between their Universal Credit entitlement and the amount they were actually paid. Deductions were a key reason why. These automated repayments for loans and benefit and tax credit overpayments and council tax arrears, for example, sometimes reduced the payment by 30 or 40 per cent. Seen as particularly frustrating and iniquitous were deductions from the couple’s joint claim for ’inherited’ debts relating to a period from before the couple had even met, when one or both partners had been in a previous relationship. Sometimes the debts and overpayments dated back as far as the 1990s. The fact that a spouse or partner was paying off the debts of his or her partner’s ex created resentment and could put strain on the couple’s relationship.

Under the legacy system, different benefits could enable each member of the couple to have a source of income but under Universal Credit there is only one payment made into one bank account. In couples with children, Child Benefit was often the only reliable source of income available to the female partner. But if there were no children in the household, one partner was sometimes forced to go ‘cap in hand’ to the other to ask for a share of the money. One woman we interviewed said it was “like having to ask your mam or dad for money” but it was demeaning for men as well as women.

As warned by women’s groups during the early period of Universal Credit’s design, the single payment could also allow one partner to take control of the household’s entire monthly income. Because most of the couples we interviewed were in committed relationships and the partners trusted each other, this did not typically happen. However, one in three women interviewed said they had experienced controlling behaviour or financial abuse in a previous relationship. Women who had re-partnered with a man who was not their children’s biological father were especially keen to ensure the payment was not made to him. But regardless of whether they themselves had any particular issues with accessing the money, many couples simply felt that a single payment symbolised financial dependence.  Ensuring that each partner had some source of personal income was felt to be a safer and fairer alternative.

More broadly, many couples felt that the benefit system did not reflect contemporary relationships or how modern families live their lives. Both partners now expect and want to go out to work, manage their own money and contribute to the household finances. The single payment seemed to them to hark back to a bygone era of male breadwinners. It is 30 years since independent taxation was introduced for married women, but the last time an official review of the treatment of couples in social security was conducted was in 1998. Independent treatment of men and women in means-tested benefits has always been resisted on the grounds that it is unaffordable, while contributory benefits have been seen to disadvantage women. With previously unthinkable levels of taxpayers’ money being spent on financial support for the working age population, and female employment at an historic high, if now is not the time for a fundamental rethink, then when is?


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All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: COVID-19, Economics, UK politics, Universal Credit, Welfare and social security


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  • the whole system is not fit for purpose, it gets even worse when it comes to Contributory ESA, UC got the £20 a week increase the ESA claimant was told that its to technically difficult to do this for them because the DWP system cant handle the process,, DISGUSTING

  • This system places couples in a stressful and unfair situation. My partner lost his job due to the COVID-19 pandemic leading to restructuring of the company, and due to the UC guidance which mandates a joint claim, I am now solely responsible for financially supporting us both whilst he searches for work in a difficult job market. This system does not make considerations for living expenses, debt repayments or any other specifics - it lumps all couples into one group and decides whether your earnings qualify you for support, which when the threshold is less than £600 pcm before you are excluded, really doesn't bode well for most couples.

  • I was diagnosed with cancer Oct 19. 205 hours of chemo, 28 sessions of radiotherapy, back to work 3rd March, furloughed, then selected for redundancy having been off sick for a year. Made redundant July 20. Not had one penny from anyone. £27.5k of our income gone, no help. Paid tax and NI since I was 16. No UC. No hope left. I wonder how much it costs to keep an illegal immigrant for one day? A murderer in prison. Whatever it costs I am worth way less to this government or they would be helping me out.

  • The system is a joke I've recently lost my job due to the coronavirus and have moved in with my partner we have started a joint universal claim. I am appalled to find out that we are now worse off as we are only entitled to £594 a month which is an outrage considering a single claimant is entitled to £409 a month how is that a fair system? It doesn't take into account people's outgoing and debts that have ammounted as everyone's struggling with the backlash of this pandemic. We are facing hardships and we are not the only ones. I can't even afford to keep my car on the road and pay insurance let alone put fuel in it. We also have a baby on the way so u can imagine the stress we are going through. The government needs to have a serious look at what they are doing to people, it's no wonder why the suicide rates are going up people just can't survive on this, it's not our fault that our prime minister and government are useless but what the MPs are getting a £3000 pay rise for what running our country into the ground, i know I'm not the only one with this view. I would love to the MPs and the government survive on this absurd ammount, don't think any of them understand what real hardship is, maybe if they did they would see that this is in acceptable.

  • Lost my job in September. Despite working for the last 14 yrs with the same employer, not entitled to JSA or UC. My employer had made cuts to working hours. When applying for JSA they only take into account the last two years. My partner earns so no UC even though it's not a lot.
    I have worked in various jobs since I left school in the 80's. I worked hard and that's it. Nothing. I don't think people on long term benefits are scroungers or lazy either. We've all been badly treated. The safety net has been pulled away leaving us in limbo. The government doesn't care.

  • This system is disgraceful. i have remarried and my husband has separate finances to me as his first wife died. Do we live in 2020 when couples finances exist separately. i am disabled and now it seems we either do this which will lead to resentment and overdependance on one partner

  • I have been reading this article as my experience of the way individuals are treated when in a couple when trying to claim universal credit has left me traumatised and angry. My husband was the "breadwinner" in our family - as a well qualified lawyer he was well paid and my part time job was taken on to supplement our income. He developed MS and over a number of years he experienced quite a lot of discrimination as a result of his disabilities and eventually lost his job. I was shocked to discover that he was unable to claim universal credit while he changed direction and this led to a souring in our relationship as he was clearly horrified at having to be "kept" by me - on my relatively low salary - and became resentful at the situation. I too became resentful at the privations that followed as a consequence of having to support him and two children on my income - holidays, days out, indeed any unnecessary expenditure became almost unknown and my relationship with my husband really suffered. He felt degraded and demeaned and I felt subconsciously very resentful even though |I knew that this was wrong. In the end he suffered a massive stroke and moved into a nursing home, whereupon I discovered he was expected to apply for universal credit and his application was successful - he died three months after the claim was approved.
    Why should it be that two people who had had jobs for most of their working lives, paid taxes independently and in general were both contributors to the family purse suddenly find that whereas one is treated as an individual for tax purposes one is treated as a couple for universal credit claims (which is funded by individual contributions to tax revenue and national insurance) and one partner is forced to become supported by the other. It is not right, not acceptable and not logical.

  • So pleased I found this, to see others so frustrated. I can’t work due to illness & am also a carer. So I get carers allowance, but that’s it.

    So the feeling of asking partner for money isn’t working ! He pays all the bills.

    In the mean while I’m existing & that’s it.

    There’s no alternative & the whole system is so old.

  • This has been so difficult for couples.
    In our relationship we both pay 50/50 in all we do and we do not share our money. We are a young couple my partner wants to buy a house one day and can not afford to financially support me but as he works I do not qualify for any UC. It now means I am thousands of pounds in debt to him as almost a year has gone by without me being able to earn any money. I see no end in sight, I am completely lost as to what to do now and if our relationship falls apart he will want that money even sooner... why oh why do they force all couples to bail each other out it just does not work. I am worse of than if I was single what a mess