The impact of our social security system and how it needs to change, as women who use it say
A decade of Social Security cuts, stagnant wages and the erosion of public services has left millions of families living in preventable poverty, leaving them with no choice but to sink further into debt as their incomes fail to keep pace with the cost of living . As a direct result of the deterioration of the welfare state, low-income households inevitably faced the effects of the economic crisis of the early 2020s. This is particularly true for women, who continue to bear the brunt of social security austerity measures.
Deep-rooted social norms, from caring responsibilities to the gender pay gap, mean women are more reliant on social security; they are also more likely to live in persistent poverty due to inadequate tax rates. In the 2010s, women accounted for 60% of the increase in relative poverty. As food bank use reaches an all-time high in the 2020s, the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis will only exacerbate the experience of poverty.
To better understand the dynamics between everyday life and social security, we conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews to share the stories of 16 disadvantaged women in Liverpool and Manchester. They either have first-hand experience of dealing with social security or are unable to access government support due to lack of recourse to public funds (NRPF).
The income safety net is in tatters and fails to meet its most basic goals
Respondents agreed that social security support did not meet the daily needs of families. Unable to afford necessities such as food, rent and utility bills, women and their children face severe financial pressure, forcing them to rely on emergency food aid, while many respondents rely on informal loans or loans from friends and family. Regular loans, including universal loans. Credit (UC) Advance Payment. Paying off these debts reduces their already insufficient income, thus perpetuating financial distress.
I have been taking out loans [sic] My dad’s money, he’ll be fired soon. So, he said to me, Number“I can’t keep lending you money, my credit card is maxed out,” and the like. – Female, early 20s, two kids, UC recipient
Punitive policies limit women’s autonomy
I’m a mom and I should be able to feed a newborn whether I work or not, but you can’t, you simply can’t. So we live in a scary world.That’s where it took me, I would say the welfare system I was in allowed me [end the pregnancy]. – Female, 20s, two children, UC and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) recipient
Lifestyle rules, such as the two-child limit and bedroom tax, limit women’s self-determination and autonomy over their lives and family lives. They describe how these policies often lead to difficult choices about family planning, mental health, and relationships. Family-level assessments also perpetuate financial dependence on a partner, which in some cases leaves women trapped in abusive relationships.
Restrictions and the inability to find child care for good jobs push families into poverty
Women feel pressured to accept any job that is available, regardless of salary, suitability or long-term stability, which results in them having lower expectations of interacting with the system. This pressure is caused by the threat of sanctions and a conditionality system that seems more focused on monitoring compliance than guiding or supporting career development.
That’s what it feels like, like, they’re [Jobcentre staff] looking at you like Number“You just have to get out of the situation and find any job. I don’t care if you have to travel, or it’s difficult for you, or it triggers your mental health. Get out now. ” – Female, early 30s, two children, self-employed UC beneficiary
These positions are often poorly paid and on zero-hours contracts, exacerbating financial insecurity. For those entering the workforce, child care options are limited and inconsistent with their work patterns.
Internal interactions are cold and external attitudes are deeply ingrained
Dealing with social security is difficult for many people, and poor communication from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) further reinforces the perception that the system is unsupportive. These interactions require significant time, energy, and digital literacy, a burden that partially disenfranchises them and distracts from other important aspects of their lives, such as finding a job, getting an education, or caring for a family. However, not all women interviewed were eligible for support. The experiences of three of the women reveal what it is like to live with the NRPF, who are forced to juggle multiple jobs without being able to make ends meet.
They make you feel like you’re basically a bum… you’re a beggar – you’re looking around for something. We are all trying to do one thing, and that is to stay alive. – Female, early 30s, one child, UC recipient
Most women also reported that the stigma of Social Security income was pervasive and deep-rooted. Women, who often appear in media and political narratives, believe this stigma is based on stereotypes that portray recipients as lazy, opportunistic, or taking shortcuts, which affects their self-perceptions and interactions with others. This stigma is often gendered and exacerbated by racial and anti-immigrant bias.
You know when people look at you they say Number“Oh, it’s these people,” especially when they know you are not from here, you stop talking. [with] accent. They were like, Number“Maybe these people are here to get money. ” – Female, early 50s, two children (one of whom lives at home), UC beneficiary
Weak financial foundation leads to deterioration of physical and mental health
The constant burden of bills and debt directly impacts physical and mental health, while deficiencies in UC hinder social participation, lead to isolation and exacerbate feelings of shame. Conditions attached and threats of sanctions also have a significant impact on their overall well-being, while the incompatibility of some low-wage jobs can lead to breakdowns in mental or physical health and eventual reintegration into social security.
My mental health was constantly alarming. It was just one thing after another. I kept getting phone calls, letters saying I owe this, I owe that, and I was sitting there, like, Number“I don’t know what I would do if I borrowed money to buy food at the end of the month. ” – Female, 20s, two kids, UC recipient
Some women say these negative impacts on health and well-being also affect their children, despite their best efforts to protect them from the harshest realities of poverty.
Designing a social security system that works for women is necessary
These experiences highlight the key challenges women face in the current social security system. To end these negative conflicts with the state, improvements in social safety net are needed – the NEF proposes to replace UC with a National Living Income (NLI). The system is rooted in three core principles:
- Provide adequate support based on needs.
- Rebalance the welfare system with stronger universal pillars.
- Improve the financial work incentive mechanism.
However, these principles do not cover the look and feel of a reformed social security system. To conclude the interview, we explored which principles women believe are key to reform. They agreed that reforms must ensure that Social Security provides adequate support to those who need it most. Such support will include tailored measures to help individuals enter the workforce, such as appropriate training, job placement assistance and easier access to good childcare.
In their interactions with the DWP, women called for an immediate overhaul of conditions and sanctions, advocating for a fairer approach and listening to and learning from the experiences of those who use the system every day. A fairer system would help lift them out of poverty and restore the autonomy that many women feel is lacking in their lives. Key to achieving this is effective communication between the DWP and those who need support, streamlining the claimant experience and broadening eligibility, creating a strong safety net for everyone.
Isn’t money the biggest worry in life? So, know that the financial security you have is going to be huge, absolutely huge. It makes things better for everyone, not just me but everyone. – Female, 30s, one child, UC and DLA recipient