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Uncharted Territory: Universal Credit, Couples and Money

Griffiths, Rita; Wood, Marsha; Bennett, Fran; Millar, Jane

ZSUniversal Credit is a fundamental reform of means-tested working age benefits in the UK, replacing six benefits and tax credits with one monthly payment per individual or couple. It aims to simplify benefits, reduce administrative costs and fraud and error, and tackle poverty by improving take-up and increasing employment. Its rollout has been repeatedly delayed and beset by controversy.

Universal Credit removes the distinction between being in and out of paid work and imposes work conditionality requirements on most claimants, including – for the first time – many partners in couples with children, and people in work on a low income. The first stages of the rollout involved single people, meaning that we know less about the experiences of couples on Universal Credit – in relation to either issues with an impact on all claimants, or those specific to couples. This research helps to fill that gap.

The Research and the Report

Our research, entitled Couples balancing work, money and care under the shifting landscape of Universal Credit, is a three-year (2018–2021), two phase, longitudinal qualitative study conducted by the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath and the University of Oxford. The research explores how couples deal with work, care and money in the context of Universal Credit. This report sets out findings from phase 1, conducted between 2018 and 2020, focusing on design and payment. Our analysis draws on the experiences and views of our 90 interview participants to identify issues relevant to couples, especially in accessing benefit and managing and negotiating their finances. Participants will be interviewed again in 2020 about how life has changed and how well the system has responded.

Analysis and modelling of the impact of Universal Credit have often focused on gains and losses in entitlement for different groups compared to the ‘legacy’ system. But in addition to the amount of Universal Credit its rules and conditions, and how it is designed and paid, also affect people’s lives. Research has also tended to treat the household as an undifferentiated unit. Our interviews with couples instead explore how both partners responded to different aspects of Universal Credit.

Research and reports based on ‘lived experience’ have concentrated on more vulnerable groups, especially those on the lowest incomes and reliant on Universal Credit as their main income, and claimants experiencing difficulties. Our varied recruitment methods resulted in a diverse sample, including many claimants in paid work or recently employed. Many had claimed Working Tax Credit and some had incomes at the upper end of Universal Credit eligibility. They had not generally approached organisations for help or advice on problems. This report is thus based on a more varied group of claimants and labour market situations, reinforcing but also augmenting previous findings. Our fieldwork was before the unprecedented surge in applications to Universal Credit due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pool of claimants is being significantly widened in this context, and so will include more diversity, making this research even more relevant.

The report is based on thematic analysis of individual and joint interviews with partners in couples (with and without children) who had claimed Universal Credit jointly. Some interviews also took place with single claimants and lone parents who had previously made joint claims with partners for Universal Credit and/or tax credits. Participants had received Universal Credit for over six months, so were experiencing its longer-term rather than initial effects.

123 individual and joint face to face interviews were conducted with 90 research participants in 53 households between June 2018 and January 2019, in four areas in England and Scotland that were amongst the first to roll out Universal Credit Full Service. Participants had a range of previous work and education experiences, and some were affected by mental or physical ill-health or disability. At the time of interview, in just over half of the 53 households (29) there was no-one in work, while just under half (24) had at least one earner. For 31 households, Universal Credit was the main income source. Of the 41 couples ten were dual-earner, 13 were one-earner and 18 had no earners. 30 couples had dependent children. There were nine lone parents and three single claimants. Only 12 couples were married, and there were several ‘blended’ families and step-families. All interviewees described themselves as white. All couples were female/male.

The second file is the technical and methodological report which accompanies the report on phase 1 of the project Couples Balancing Work, Money and Care: Exploring the Shifting Landscape Under Universal Credit, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC (ES/R004811/1) for three years, March 2018 to March 20211 (https://www.bath.ac.uk/publications/uncharted-territory-universalcredit-couples-and-money/). This technical report has three main sections: the first summarises the research design and methodology; the second presents characteristics of the interviewed sample; and the third includes the information and consent documents.

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