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to hit their inboxes, up to a third  have received the worrying news that their application has either been  rejected, withdrawn or zero-rated. Some rejections relate to speculative applications, later withdrawn, due to the applicant’s eligibility for the government’s job retention scheme or the self-employment income support scheme.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

  • I’ve been completely financially supporting my partner since December. It has been a horrible degrading experience for him, and a stress inducing task for me. My partner has always worked but his contributions mean nothing to this government. We aren’t even entitled to council tax reduction as I earn too much allegedly (£22k) even though I earn under the median in Wales (£26k) and considered a low earner.

  • Lost my job last march ,,i recently moved in with my girlfriend and tried to claim universal credit which was rejected due to my girlfriends earnings ,,I've had quad bypass and two strokes and cannot even afford my prescription for heart medication ,worked all my life and this is how we are treated ,been suicidal ever since so doctor prescribed antidepressants which i cannot afford either lived in bristol all my life and totally disgusted with government,universal credit system ,and all because government let covid in to destroy many good people's lives .thankyou boris ,do hope you can afford to bury me as i cannot 🙁

  • I was made redundant in September 2020 and applied for Universal Credit, only to find out I am not eligible for a penny as my husband earns £30,000. We have always split our bills 50:50. On top of this I have my own mortgage and debts from renovations. I have worked my whole life in minimum wage jobs, I thought the dole was there to support people like me in the interim between losing a job and getting a new one. However, I was shocked that the UK government would leave me in such a vulnerable position - to be reliant on my husband in 2020!
    I have never felt such a combination of indignation and fear. I felt like I was living The Handamaids' Tale - the scene when the government takes all the women's money and puts it in their husband's bank account. I was shaken and upset for weeks. I have to ask my husband to pay my bills and debts for me. I have to ask him for money for food. That I not welfare, that is forced financial dependence, and does nothing for my self esteem and self worth.
    Although I understand that sometime the wife will be the breadwinner, mainly it will be women who feel the effects of this 1950s style benefits system.

  • My partner was made redundant in September after being furloghed, I have my state pension which we have to live on, he is not entitled to any help, we have both work from the age of 15, he feels let down

  • So overwhelmed by all these comments. Some of these circumstances are heartbreaking. I can't believe the laborious, probing and abominable process I've just been through.
    After loosing my job and my flat due to the pandemic I moved in with my boyfriend, we had only been seeing each other a few months he was so generous and I was absolutely desperate and had no choice. Now not only has he had to go through the UC process too, because we must have a joint claim. Apparently he has to provide everything for me on his stretched salary. UC or more likely a computer has deemed it can support us both fully and has left me entitled to not a penny.
    Not only do we have to suffer glitchy online systems, rude and unpunctual staff, going through the humiliation of being made to justify why you need money to live.
    I feel like a dependent, I don't feel like a person. Why does a partner whom I never would of moved in with, now suddenly responsible for my phone bill. I'm scared I will loose this relationship, I'm scared I'm going to be homeless, everything feels out of my control, I'm terrified my financial situation has been tacked on to someone else's. Im scared I'm going to burn through the limited saving I have, he has, I'm scared we are always going to be in this position, we are constantly robbing Pete to pay Paul and more in the hole we go.. my heart is breaking for not only how little the government care about people that have always paid tax and contributed to the economy but for all the people now and even before this pandemic have had to navigate this archaic system, I and many people do not live in a household as if I were married, but we get lumped in. Hell, some people can't rely on there partner to give them everything they need, how are people supposed to live relying solely on a significant other, everyone has financial responsibilities, family, lives... people generally live with in there means, they don't just poof away, we get used to a certain income have outgoings want to live and not just cover survival costs... even if you reduce those outgoings as soon as possible, accumulative debt builds up fast and can be really hard to get out from under...I live here because I simply couldn't afford to live on my own without a job, and now even if I wanted to leave, I'm completely imprisoned, I'm stuck, what needs to happen to make individuals a priority, certainly not loosing millions of people to a virus, were all stuck. It's terrifying think there are so many in this situation in better and worst positions... But non of them are recognised or listened to... just denied. Cowardly through an online portal. I feel like I'm going crazy. I feel like I have gone back to the 1920's. My boyfriend is the head of the household, I can't vote and not allowed pockets.

    What on earth are people suppose to do??? Someone do something!! Please help.

    And I know people are citing how much money is spent on immigrants/ prisons and I'm sure other things but that's not the target or the problem they are just people/ citizens like us, that need compassion and looking after making a mistakes and geography aside. We should be uniting against the problem; the centralised governments of the world; the outdated systems that don't reflect regular people; the obsolete laws and red tape that enables corruption at every level and creates this toxic problem.

    • Hi I feel for you, I wrote a comment very similar to yours. I'm in the same situation. I'm dependent on my husband, who isn't a kind nor generous man. When the tables were turned in the past, when he had no job, I paid the bills without thinking twice about it. I also did all the chores and cooking. Now he has the gall to complain if I ask him to do his share of the housework - because, he says "he pays for me, why should he he do 50%". The indignation, the internalised rage. I am a 1950s dependent housewife in 2021. This is crazy. Welfare should be given out to the individual, not a couple! I am so angry the government has done this to us. I imagine the government is just like my husband - an aggressive, lazy, bully. When will any of the politicians protect us woman from getting stuck in such circumstances!?

    • Hi, feel so much sympathy for you ( I wrote a similar response but I am married) because how can you save up to move out on your own without your own benefits to save? How can the government think it's okay to do this to people? It is just like the 1950s. It's forced financial dependence for women. It's dangerous for women to be financially dependent on men (I believe for men, it is only demoralising). For women it can lead to financial abuse, emotional abuse, and onwards and upwards to physical abuse. It's crazy this system was allowed to happen. 1950s Britain! I recommend anyone who isn't married, should say they are single for these claims. That is the only way around it.

  • Due to mental health issues (I have bipolar and PTSD) I had to leave my last job. I can't cope very well with work, as much as I wish I could be an upstanding member of society, it's a huge huge struggle for me.
    I applied for benefits but because I have a husband (haven't been married long), and he has a full time job, we arent entitle to a penny.
    I wouldn't mind, but we don't share our finances. My husband pays the household bills and I pay for food, everyday items like shampoo etc, upkeep of our cat and anything else that crops up.
    I would never dream of asking my husband to "pay for me".
    This situation left me even more mentally ill as I hate feeling/being a burden on anyone. Also, my husband doesn't earn a lot for the job he does, his wage covers bills with very little left over.
    The current benefits system is a disgrace. I worry for women who's partners are financially abusive as they have no way of getting any money to look after themselves.
    I am now employed part time for another company and every single day is a struggle. I find it hard to get out of bed and even shower. But I have no other choice. My mental health is horrific and quite frankly I'm blaming the benefits system and the government for this.
    When my mental health is okay I work. When it's not okay I just need a little help financially to get me through the really bad times.

    I feel lost and I feel completely forgotten by the government, like I dont even exist.

  • The simple and unassailable fact is that taxation is theft.