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The stigma that thrives in secrecy

Sophie Negus is a doctoral researcher in the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University. Here, Sophie discusses the 'benefits stigma' experienced by Universal Credit claimants in work

Universal Credit (UC) is not just for people out of work but also those who are working and low paid. UC is replacing the legacy benefits system which features different forms of social security such as for the unemployed (Job Seeker’s Allowance), people with health conditions (Employment and Support Allowance) or low paid workers (Working Tax Credits). The latest DWP statistics show there are now over six million people in the UK claiming UC including over two million individuals who are in work. How do people claiming UC negotiate the new forms of ‘benefit stigma’ engendered through welfare reform, particularly those in work?

The issue of stigma was raised in the latest Welfare at a Social Distance report exploring the ‘non-take up’ of social security during the pandemic, estimating that half a million of those eligible for UC did not make a claim. The ‘non-take up’ of UC caused considerable impacts on individuals financially and for their mental health, yet this issue is ‘invisible’ as it is not currently measured by the DWP. ‘Benefit stigma’ was the reason for 27% of those surveyed not making a claim. This supports findings from an earlier report which found stigma delayed 33% of individuals’ access to UC during the pandemic. The issue of stigma is complex and of growing importance as the UC cohort is increasing in size and diversity.

Despite taking place prior to the pandemic, my research findings provide insight into how people in work negotiate stigma whilst claiming UC. Drawing on qualitative PhD research, which took place in 2019, my research found that the role and reach of ‘benefit stigma’ in claimants' lives was significant.

Ryan, who works part-time, felt like a ‘burden to the taxpayer’ and felt shame over his UC access. Ryan felt this way despite his support of the welfare state and explained: “I don’t think of anyone else who is claiming as a burden to the taxpayer, it’s just like the way I see myself when I’m on it.” We can see the complex and often contradictory nature of ‘benefit stigma’ at play here. Ryan experienced ‘benefit stigma’ despite little interaction with Job Centre Plus, and therefore encountered little ‘claims stigma’, and was able to ‘mask’ his claimant status through his employment. Yet, he still feels like a ‘burden’ which shows how rooted and powerful ‘benefit stigma’ can be.

The hiding of a ‘claimant status’ was a common strategy used by those in work receiving UC to avoid ‘benefit stigma’. For example, Natalie, who is self-employed, kept her UC claim a secret as she explained: “I would think I could be judged or people think I am on the fiddle because I am working and claiming even though it is legitimate”. Natalie’s comment shows how she responds to the potential stigma and scrutiny over her deservingness to access UC by hiding it, which her employment allows her to do. The examples illustrate the new levels of ‘benefit stigma’ low paid workers encounter whilst accessing UC, as Ryan explained: “I think that [stigma] spreads to everyone. Anyone who is claiming UC kind of gets tarnished with that same brush”.

Through design and delivery, UC scrutinizes and obscures the deservingness of individuals whilst simultaneously increasing their need as everyone gets ‘tarnished by the same brush’. The responses to ‘benefit stigma’ which hide a low-paid worker’s ‘claimant’ status, whilst offering protection to the individual, could intensify the stigma as the image of who accesses UC becomes skewed to focus on those out of work.

Another unique, and untested, feature of UC is in-work conditionality whereby low paid workers are required to try and increase their hours or look for extra employment to receive their UC payment. Only one participant experienced in-work conditionality and this was Tina who worked fifteen hours a week. Tina described the work-search requirements as “hard because there is nothing out there” and how her work coach made her feel like “she was never doing enough”. For Tina, in-work conditionality was challenging emotionally and for her self-worth, both consequences which undermine attempts to increase employment. Tina’s experience of ‘claims stigma’ shows how in-work conditionality has the potential to be as damaging as the work-search conditionality experienced by unemployed individuals.

The experiences of Ryan, Natalie and Tina shed light on how people in work living with UC encounter and respond to ‘benefit stigma’. For these individuals, UC increased stigma and required them to engage in strategies to protect their ‘self’ from this harm. However, this invisibility of workers within the UC cohort could intensify ‘benefit stigma’. Like all stigma, ‘benefit stigma’ thrives in secrecy. Perhaps the growing and diversifying UC cohort due to the pandemic will provide the opportunity to change the record on ‘welfare’, including who receives it.

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