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Bright Blue, the independent think tank for liberal conservatism, has today published new analysis, entitled Benefit to all? Financial experience of Universal Credit claimants during the pandemic. It reveals the troubling extent of the financial difficulties faced by existing and new Universal Credit claimants relative to the rest of the public during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The original analysis compares both the actual and perceived financial situations of those who do not claim Universal Credit (‘non-UC’), those who were claiming Universal Credit in February 2020 (‘existing UC’), and those who began to claim Universal Credit in March 2020 or later (‘new UC’), at five points: before the pandemic in 2018-19, May 2020, July 2020, November 2020 and March 2021. 

This is done using data from the Understanding Society Covid-19 Study and the 2018-19 UK Household Longitudinal Study. This enables an assessment of the extent of change in the actual and perceived financial situations during the pandemic. The months during the pandemic used in the analysis were chosen on the basis of availability of data on answers to financial questions.

The main findings from this analysis are:

  • A significant minority of both existing UC and new UC households reported not being up to date with household bill payments throughout the pandemic. Among existing UC claimants, this rose from 25% in 2018-19 to up to 38% in March 2021, peaking at 46% in November 2020. Similarly, 32% of new UC claimants reported not being up to date with at least some household bills near the start of the pandemic in May 2020, before declining to a low of 17% in March 2021, indicating that new UC claimants were less likely to face this specific financial challenge as the pandemic continued. These compare to just 5% of non-UC respondents in 2018-19, 6% in May 2020 and 4% in March 2021.The difference between existing UC claimants and non-UC respondents reporting not being up to date with at least some household bill payment rose by 14 percentage points between before the pandemic (2018-19) and March 2021.
  • A significant minority of both existing UC and new UC households also reported not being up to date on housing payments, such as rent or mortgage payments, during the pandemic. For existing UC claimants, between 26% reported facing this financial challenge in November 2020, before falling to 18% in March 2021. Similarly, 16% of new UC claimants in May 2020 and 23% in July 2020 report not being up to date with housing payments, falling to 11% in March 2021. In contrast, only 7% of non-UC respondents in 2018-19 reported falling behind on housing payments, with no increase beyond that during the pandemic. 
  • Existing UC claimants were more likely to face a worsening than an improving level of personal debt in the initial part of the pandemic. 30% of existing UC claimants reported increasing the size of their debts compared to 13% decreasing it in July 2020. However, this fell to 12% by March 2021, by which time 21% reported decreasing their debt. Both non-UC respondents and new UC claimants were more likely to be decreasing the size of their debt than increasing it at different points of the pandemic. Aside from this, among all population groups and during all time periods, the majority of people’s debt levels have stayed the same.
  • A significant minority of UC claimants reported finding it ‘quite’ or ‘very’ difficult to manage financially during the pandemic. 34% of existing UC claimants reported this in 2018-19 which declined to 22% in July 2020, before rising back to 34% in November 2020, and falling down to 19% in March 2021. Similarly, 35% of new UC claimants reported this in May 2020, but this largely fell to 18% in July 2020, 19% in November 2020 and 15% in March 2021. Overall, the difference between existing UC claimants and non-UC respondents actually declined by 11 percentage points between 2018-19 and March 2021.
  • Both existing and new UC claimants are much more likely than the rest of the population to think there is a major chance they will have difficulty paying for bills and expenses in the next three months, despite a decline in such fears since the start of the pandemic. There was a decline from 54% to 32% among existing UC claimants worried about their financial future between May 2020 and March 2021 and a decline from 51% to 22% among new UC claimants in the same time period. The difference between the number of existing UC claimants and non-UC respondents reporting this financial anxiety actually declined by 14 percentage points between May 2020 and March 2021 and the difference between new UC claimants and non-UC respondents declined by 21 percentage points in the same period. 
  • Reported life satisfaction of non-UC respondents has remained significantly above that of existing UC claimants throughout the pandemic. The reported gap was biggest between non-UC and new UC claimants at the start of the pandemic in May 2020, with a 30 percentage point difference. The reported gap was biggest between non-UC and existing UC claimants in November 2020, with a 35 percentage point difference. While new UC claimants reported lower life satisfaction than existing UC claimants in May 2020, this reversed by November 2020, before the two largely aligned by March 2021. By the later stage of the pandemic in March 2021, 46% of existing and 48% of new UC claimants reported being satisfied with their life, compared to 67% of the rest of the population.

Anvar Sarygulov, Senior Research Fellow at Bright Blue and analysis author, commented:

“Even with the Government increasing financial support provided through Universal Credit in March 2020, many claimants have continued to face significant financial difficulties as the pandemic progressed. However, the financial situation for existing and new UC claimants has shifted throughout the pandemic, with some evidence for improvement as the pandemic progressed, especially by March 2021.

Fully withdrawing the Universal Credit uplift in September 2021 will put an even greater number of claimants at risk of financial problems at a point when the economic recovery is only gathering pace.” 

[Image: Tierra Mallorca]