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17 September, 2020 Open access

Without more tailored and personalised support for the post-COVID-19 universal credit claimant cohort, the social security system risks exacerbating existing inequalities and creating new ones

New reserach finds that a higher proportion of post-COVID-19 claimants are young, BAME, from a higher 'social grade', without a disability, or owner-occupiers compared to the existing pre-COVID-19 claimant cohort

Without more tailored and personalised support for the post-COVID-19 universal credit claimant cohort, the social security system risks exacerbating existing inequalities and creating new ones, a new research report from Salford University has warned.

In the report - that forms part of an 18-month national research project, Welfare at a (Social) Distance, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council - researchers from Salford University provide a broad outline of the demographic profile of existing and new benefit claimants pre and post COVID-19 by drawing on survey data collected online from more than 7,000 new and existing claimants by YouGov between 21 May and 15 June 2020.

However, key findings suggest that the socio-demographic profile of new claimants differs considerably from those who were already claiming before the COVID-19 outbreak, including that they are more likely to be -

Seeking to establish whether these differences can be explained by ‘churn’ within the benefits system - when the characteristics of newer, short-term, claimants tend to differ from those of claimants who remain in the benefits system for a longer period of time - the researchers find that the profile of new claimants is atypical to that of pre-pandemic claimants and that it remains to be seen whether the distinctive characteristics of existing and new claimant groups will endure over time.

Nevertheless, the report notes that the partial application of crisis social security measures and their staged withdrawal in the wake of COVID-19 are generating new inequalities within the benefits system in terms of who is deemed eligible and/or in need of additional social assistance - such as younger people and those from a BAME background, who are more likely to be claiming benefits than they were before the pandemic but who are affected by aspects of the benefits system that means they may lose out relative to others.

While the report notes a word of caution on interpreting the findings too rigidly in the early stages of the pandemic, it concludes that -

‘Overall, we find that the new COVID-19 cohort of benefit claimants is atypical. Reflecting on crisis social security measures, their staged withdrawal and pre-existing features of the benefits system, we believe more support needs to be tailored and personalised to this diverse cohort of benefit claimants (and those that fall outside the current remit of eligibility). Without doing so, the social security system risks exacerbating existing inequalities and creating new ones in terms of access to timely income and appropriate employment support through the course of the pandemic.’

For more information, see Who are the new COVID-19 cohort of benefit claimants? from the Salford University website.

NB - the first report from the project, Claiming but connected to work - Rapid Report #1 - June 2020, looked at how far new benefit claimants are connected to the world of work, finding that most new universal credit claimants (70 per cent) who had a job before the crisis, still had a job and, despite the suspension of job-search requirements and an extraordinary drop in job vacancies, the majority of workless new universal credit/jobseeker’s allowance claimants (59 per cent) were still looking for work.