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‘I feel like a failure’: Universal credit parents face mental health nosedive

The controversial benefits system makes it difficult to "budget and survive", parents said, as experts called for universal credit reforms
The rise in need for universal credit rose more sharply in already deprived areas during the pandemic than in better-off areas, researchers said. Image: Pexels

Extra measures introduced as part of universal credit are putting “immense pressure” on parents claiming the benefit and pushing them deeper into stress and anxiety, new testimony reveals, as experts called for higher payments to prevent a mental illness boom.

“I’m a widowed parent of two primary aged children,” Aurora T, in London, told Universities of York and Birmingham research project Covid Realities.

“Our rent alone is over 95 per cent of our total benefits. I have not been able to find work which fits around the children’s school times. On top of it all, this month the government has taken money to pay for previous benefit overpayments (made when my late husband was dying).”

Aurora is one of more than 100 low-income parents and guardians who have been reporting their experiences of pandemic poverty to the researchers.

“Our situation is precarious, we struggle enormously and have done for many reasons,” Aurora, whose income is limited by the benefit cap, added. “I feel like an utter failure.”

The reintroduction of job-hunting requirements, deductions to pay back loans which covered a five-week wait for a first payment, and uncertainty around the £20-per-week increase set to be cut in September – combined with rising food, heating and school bills – were linked to parents falling into mental ill health, according to the report.

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Parents said juggling homeschooling, spending enough time searching for work so their universal credit payments would not be stopped, and planning to ensure their children did not go hungry or without internet to catch up on classes was having a severe impact on their mental health.

Ministers must reform the UK welfare system to end the elements of universal credit found to put extra pressure on struggling families – such as the five-week wait for a first payment, the benefit cap and the two-child limit – and to ensure Government policy did not “exacerbate psychological distress,” anti-poverty experts said in response to the findings. 

Local authority data recorded between 2013 and 2020 showed a rise in antidepressant prescriptions in areas with a higher proportion of people claiming the benefit, though researchers emphasised that this does not confirm a causal link between the two.

Many parents must manage “additional layers of insecurity caused by their poverty and social security receipt” on top of the same pandemic challenges faced by the well-off, researchers said.

“Parents in this research speak for so many families who are struggling to get by on universal credit with all the stress and fear of not knowing if they can pay the bills,” said Alison Garnham, chief executive of research partner Child Poverty Action Group.

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“Their testimonies make a powerful case for increasing children’s benefits and for reforming universal credit, not least by ending the five-week wait for a first payment and making the £20 weekly ‘Covid bonus’ permanent. “

Callen R, a lone father of two in the North East, told researchers he was “feeling very low”.

“This whole universal credit thing I felt I was forced into has got me rock bottom,” he added. “Having had a heart attack in January this year the anxiety and sometimes chest pains are really on my mind. Is this situation going to push me to the edge?”

Around six million people were claiming universal credit by the beginning of 2021, driven to a record high by pandemic redundancies and income cuts. But Covid Realities researchers found the rise in claims was “much flatter” in the most well-off local authorities, where an average eight per cent of people were claiming the benefit compared to 18 per cent in disadvantaged regions.

The Covid Realities project, which launched in April 2020, is funded by the Nuffield Foundation and examines the impact of the pandemic on families facing hardship by asking them to write online diaries about their experience and take part in workshops as well as policy discussions.