The politics of Universal Credit

Submitted by R Totale on June 6, 2019

A significant and rapidly increasing proportion of people living in the UK are not only becoming poorer, but facing a daily struggle to meet their most basic survival needs. The number of people sleeping on the streets, or in tents, cars or on public transport, has roughly doubled since 2010, whilst the number of households in temporary accommodation has risen by an estimated 73% in the same period. The Trussell Trust (just one of numerous large and small organisations providing food and other basics for people in crisis) gave out 1.3 million emergency food parcels in the year 2017/18, while teachers are routinely dipping into their own pockets to feed and clothe children, and local holiday clubs and charities support roughly three million children at risk of hunger during school holidays. As anti-capitalists with a particular interest in the organisation of reproductive labour, what should be our response to this crisis?

The biggest immediate factor triggering destitution is the widening gap between the barest cost of living and the income provided by an increasingly punitive benefits system to those unable to meet their needs through waged labour. Universal Credit can be seen as the culmination of a shift away from a conception of welfare as a collectivised “safety net”, designed to keep those fallen on hard times from destitution, to a sophisticated – if flawed – tool for enforcing work discipline. Around two-thirds of households needing to claim benefits are in some kind of waged work, reflecting increasingly insecure and exploitative work patterns and the declining value of the wage; but also presumably reflecting the increasing impossibility of financing unwaged and autonomous activity through the benefits system. The oft-cited subsidy to rip-off employers represented by in-work (top-up) benefits also relies upon the low level of out-of-work benefits and the sanctions-backed conditionality attached to both in- and out-of-work benefits to enforce the take-up of that employment.

And none of this should obscure the fact that the most savage attack has been on those claimants unable to engage with the labour market at all (or can engage with it to only a limited extent) due to a disability or illness, or to caring responsibilities, primarily childcare. For example, about three quarters of claimants whose entitlement has been slashed well below what used to be the official breadline by the Overall Household Benefit Cap are either single parents of young children or people assessed as currently unfit for work. Along with the “two-child” limit on child tax credits and their equivalent in Universal Credit, this is an open attempt to limit reproductive rights to those able to support their children (and fund their commodified care) through the labour market. This further entrenches the popular understanding of children as a luxury commodity (“Don’t have them unless you can afford them”), consigning women in particular to relations of dependency on wage-earning partners, and further eliminating spaces for autonomous life-activity. Meanwhile, disability activists have – not unreasonably – described the savage cuts in their benefits and the nerve-racking assessments they endure as a process of culling those not deemed to be economically productive (e.g., Universal Credit will be worth at least £64 per week less than the old benefits for new claimants with the most severe disabilities).

Apart from a flurry of protests around the introduction of the “bedroom tax” in 2013 (partly inspired by over-optimistic comparisons with the successful community organising against the poll tax in the late ’80s) and a vast proliferation of small solidarity projects such as Pay-As-You-Feel cafes, free-shops and informal advice and support centres, there has been little significant organising from the Left against these attacks. Militant disability activists – literally fighting for their lives – have found themselves isolated and have even been criticised by parts of the Left (e.g. by Unite the Union) for “weakening” campaigns against Universal Credit by demanding it be scrapped rather than following the then-official “pause and fix” line.

This lukewarm engagement is undoubtedly due, in part, to the focus on the waged workplace as the key locus of class solidarities and of leverage against capital. Benefit cuts, on the other hand, disproportionately affect those engaged not, or not only, in the immediate production of value, but in the reproduction/maintenance of human life, and hence of labour power; work which is typically unwaged (primarily childcare) and which additionally has the effect of pushing those who perform it (mainly women) to the margins of the waged workforce. Unlike campaigns around wages, it is difficult to see either what kinds of leverage the unwaged worker/claimant might have, or where the antagonistic focus of a campaign around welfare should be. Conversations with claimants suggest that it is this lack of an obviously credible strategy, as much as the practical difficulties of isolation, stigma, ill health, and carer responsibilities, which prevents claimants and their supporters organising on an effective scale around demands for better benefits.

Criticism of the benefit system from advocacy organisations, NGOs and campaigners has tended to be framed either as an appeal to public humanitarian sentiment, or as an attempt to refute by means of facts and figures the government and media narrative of claimants as “skivers” and “scroungers” out to bleed the “hard-working tax-payer” dry. Corporations, as Unite the Union’s Community section correctly point out, receive hundreds of times more in tax breaks and subsidies than is spent on benefits. Campaigners also – truthfully – point out that the majority of claimants want to or wish they could “work”. It would be wrong to dismiss these relatively conservative campaigns – every concession wrung from the government has undoubtedly saved lives, and indeed many more will be saved if a future Labour government makes good on its pledge to scrap benefit sanctions, Work Capability Assessments and the “bedroom tax”, and to remove some of the worst elements of Universal Credit (e.g. the five-week wait for a first payment). Essentially, though, these arguments operate comfortably within the parameters of a “common sense” in which self-sufficiency through waged work is seen as a natural aspiration and virtue, and the only political choice is about the degree of compassion extended towards those who are unable to meet their needs through the job market.

To build a campaign around demands for a truly radical welfare system requires – and presents an opportunity for – a direct challenge to the foundational principles of the system as it currently exists, and as most clearly embodied in Universal Credit: that is, the principle that “work” (i.e. waged work) should be the primary way out of poverty. The campaign against Universal Credit cannot be a single issue, purely “reformist” campaign, partly because the question of “welfare” implicitly goes to the heart of how we understand work, and points towards a far more comprehensive collectivism than that implied by the concept of a “safety net”. Most obvious is the need to centre the reproductive labour – primarily childcare – whose cost (considered as the cost of reproducing the labour force) is externalised onto the unwaged domestic sphere, where it is ideologically construed as a “private” matter and as a barrier to “real” work. In addition, and connected to this, is the ambiguous character of all work as the activity whereby on the one hand we reproduce and strive to take control of our individual and collective life as caring, creative, meaning-making social beings, whilst on the other hand reproducing the system of wage exploitation and commodity consumption which set the parameters for this activity. It would be inaccurate simply to map this duality onto the distinction between the unwaged and waged spheres, or an overstated distinction between “reproductive” and “productive” labour. Nevertheless, the last couple of decades have seen a calculated transformation of the benefit system from one which allowed small spaces for autonomous creative, political or reproductive/care work (and indeed for “non-productive” activity valued for its own sake) – to one which seeks to eliminate those spaces almost entirely.

Universal Credit and “work”

Many critics have suggested that the problem with Universal Credit lies in its implementation – hence the call to “pause and fix” – yet the central problem really lies with the underpinning design principles that UC must resemble “work” (i.e. waged employment), inculcate “work discipline” and “incentivise” (i.e. enforce) “work” through the use of harsh conditionality backed up by sanctions. A further principle flowing from this is that it is seen as both “necessary” and “fair” that anyone unable to meet their material needs through the job market should suffer a significant degree of deprivation. The philosophy is not new or unique to UC, but UC is unique in applying it so systematically: by drawing the six main benefits and tax credits into one, the only “simplification” actually achieved is that of extending the embrace of this crude overarching ideology across an ever-wider section of the population.

In this scenario, human beings are merely interchangeable units of potential (flexible) labour, indistinguishable by autonomous interests, needs or obligations, whether individual or collective. Likewise, all “work” represents mere units of economic activity (i.e. potential profit), interchangeable without regard to its content or its specific impacts either on society or on the quality of life of the worker(s). Of course, such a naked vision of the essential wage-relation cannot be applied universally in an economy partially dependent on specialist skills and interests, maintaining a semblance of public services and securing consent through the perception of “choice” and the possibility of “advancement”. Rather, the discipline and hardship of the benefits system serves to produce a section of the workforce for whom the primary incentive for “work” is, perforce, simply to escape the penury of the benefits system – thereby meeting the demands of the most exploitative areas of the job market whose requirement is for a “flexible” and easily disposable workforce.

Thus the inbuilt tendency of UC is to exert downward pressure on wage levels and job quality, and heighten the barriers to workers’ solidarity and resistance – in other words, to replicate the expected effects of high unemployment in a scenario where outright unemployment is low – and it does so by tending to enforce work patterns which actively hinder the “in-work progression” which it purports to encourage, instead locking people into cycles of insecure low quality work, zero hours contracts, fake self-employment and repeated bouts of unemployment. Research by York University has found that the threat of sanctions can indeed promote the take-up of employment, but the work is more likely to be short-term, part-time and unhelpful to the claimant’s longer-term prospects than if they are supported to hold out (or offered genuine training!) for work which better meets their needs. The employer’s requirement for “flexibility”, on the other hand, is very well served!

Viewed in this light, it is no surprise that the rate of sanctioning (i.e. having benefits stopped for “failure to comply” with conditions) has soared under Universal Credit. In large part, this reflects the broader range of claimants potentially subject to sanctions: for example, unlike under the old system, disabled people and those with long-term health conditions are not treated as having limited (ie reduced) capability for work whilst waiting for a Work Capability Assessment, but have conditions placed on them from the start, which they often struggle to comply with (a somewhat more lenient approach to those waiting for a WCA is now being trialled, but the possibility of being sanctioned for disability-related “non-compliance” remains in place). More single parents of young children are in scope for sanctioning under the UC system than was the case under the old Income Support (see below). Working claimants earning less than the minimum wage times their required hours of work (35 hours is the default) are required to prove they are seeking to increase their earnings, even though research has shown that this is rarely possible due to work patterns in these sections of the economy. Sanctions for working claimants are still being piloted at a large scale.

The ideological aspect of Universal Credit is crucial, and helps explain the apparent anomaly of cutting benefits even for people whom the system recognises cannot be forced into waged work (e.g. nine-tenths of those affected by the Benefit Cap). If consent for capitalist exploitation depends on the perceived possibility of self-sufficiency and advancement through “hard work”, this in turn relies upon obscuring of the commonality of interest between the waged and the unwaged, by the ideological production of those unable to live by waged work as a stigmatised group whose own purported inadequacies and feckless attitudes can be held to blame for their misery. The punitive structure of the benefits system serves to reinforce this perception: if claimants are being sanctioned in droves, or being put through (and “failing”) harsh Work Capability Assessments, it “must” be that a tide of unscrupulous scroungers is unfairly leeching off conscientious hard-working people. Experience of street campaigning also suggests that the arduous and unrewarding work schedules suffered by many of those in employment fuel their resentment of those depicted as “avoiding” this obligation at their expense.

Universal Credit, work and the gender system

Whilst technically gender neutral, in practice UC is modelled on and reproduces the “traditional” gendered division of labour and dependency of the main carer (most often a woman). For couples with children, one partner is required to seek full-time work whilst the other is designated as the “lead parent” with reduced hours of work search/work availability. The entire single monthly payment is made to one partner, in effect treating the couple as a “breadwinner” and a dependent. As many critics have pointed out, this increases the risk that the other partner (usually a woman) and their children can be left destitute in the case of an abusive relationship, and with a high risk of violence should they request a split payment. Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd has recently indicated that the single payment should in future be to the primary carer, but the risk of an abusive partner employing violence to retain control over the household income remains far higher than if partners made independent claims (including for their share of the rent) and were paid at more frequent intervals. The long wait for first payments, the consequent reluctance of landlords to let to benefit households, and the likelihood that a woman with children seeking to leave an abusive partner will be hit immediately by the Benefit Cap, all militate against the possibility of fleeing abuse. Partners are also able to view each other’s online journals and conversations with Job Centre staff, effectively closing off potential avenues of support.

Benefit cuts and the move to UC severely deepen existing economic inequalities. A report early this year by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the cumulative impact of tax and benefits policies from 2010 to 2021 found that women lose around twice as much as men, reflecting their greater dependency on benefits and tax credits due to the gendered division of labour. Unsurprisingly, the poorest tenth of households bear the main brunt of the cuts, losing an average of 10% of their income; but for single parents this rises to 15%, with children in 62% of lone parent households expected to be in poverty in 2021, compared to 37% in 2010. Black and Asian families are projected to lose twice as much (as a percentage of their income) as the population average, and households containing one or more people with a disability lose several thousand of pounds a year, the hardest hit being those containing a disabled child as well as a disabled adult. Clearly this data falls far short of an analysis of the multiple intersecting and mutually reinforcing factors that influence gendered and racialized patterns of waged and unwaged labour and hence of the differential impacts of benefits regimes; yet what is absolutely clear is the discriminatory impact of a system which fails to acknowledge and remunerate the labour of childcare.

The gendered impacts of the changeover to Universal Credit are by no means confined to direct cuts to the benefit income of those with childcare responsibilities. The majority of working single parents who would previously have qualified for Tax Credits will indeed be worse off under UC, but another major impact is from the extension of work search conditions to single parents of under-5s who would previously have claimed Income Support and faced a more limited conditionality regime. The latter are now amongst the largest groups to account for the soaring rate of sanctions – mostly for missing work-related interviews or turning down or leaving jobs because of childcare issues. Although in theory working parents on UC can claim back 85% of their childcare costs, the amount is capped at £646.35 per month for one child and only £1,108.04 per month for two or more children. Affordable childcare covering sufficient hours is rarely available: the amount allowed under UC is around 60% of the average cost of full-time daycare, and whilst three and four-year-old children of working parents are theoretically entitled to 30 hours of free childcare, the low rates paid for government-funded childcare are resulting in widespread closures of daycare facilities. Under these conditions single and “lead” parents have severely limited options, and are particularly vulnerable to being forced into the most exploitative “feminised” areas of the job market, which in turn has the effect of holding down wages and conditions in those sectors and beyond.

Single (and “lead”) parents of one year olds can be sanctioned for missing a work focused interview at the job centre. Single parents of two year olds can be sanctioned for failing to complete a “work preparation” requirement. Single parents of children aged three and upwards can be sanctioned for failing to seek or take up work for the mandated number of hours (usually 25 hours a week or more to fit in with school hours), with parents of over-12s being normally expected to engage in full-time work or worksearch. The amount deducted is 100% of the standard allowance for a single adult or 50% of the couple allowance, except for the lowest level of sanctions, for single/lead parents of one year olds, where “only” 40%/20% is deducted. For parents of children three and over the minimum length of a sanction is the same as for most childless claimants – 28 days, and potentially up to three years for repeat “offences”. In addition, we must remember that the Benefit Cap applies even to those in late pregnancy or with a newborn child, and results in even an average-sized unemployed household being unable to pay the rent.

Framing demands, strategies, alliances around welfare

None of the above is meant to dismiss as irrelevant the many specific problems with UC pointed out by advocacy organisations: the fact that making and maintaining a UC claim is complex and requires a good level of literacy and IT competence (as well as regular internet access); the single monthly payment in arrears (with at least a five-week wait before the first payment) that results in widespread foodbank use, arrears evictions and landlords refusing to let to benefit tenants; the inability of the monthly assessment period for UC to cope with different patterns of wage pay-dates, and the systemic losses incurred by claimants who don’t get a monthly wage and by the self-employed whose incomes fluctuate; the difficulties caused by payment of (inadequate) childcare costs in arrears upon proof of payment of fees (though this again is being “looked at” currently by the Work and Pensions Secretary); the ludicrous requirements claimants have to meet to avoid a sanction and the opaque decision-making by faceless inaccessible DWP officers… All these, along with a litany of cuts and freezes to both legacy benefits and UC, as well as non-means tested benefits such as PIP, are undoubtedly contributing to a humanitarian crisis on a major scale.

Neither do we intend to dismiss the impacts of benefit cuts upon people without caring responsibilities; indeed, out-of-work benefits in the UK are amongst the lowest in Europe – a fact hugely beneficial to the low-paying employer and especially catastrophic for that small minority of single childless people who remain unemployed for more than a few months, who are mostly too ill to hold down even a shit job, have major unmet educational, training or support needs, or live in areas with exceptionally high unemployment. But in drawing attention to the systemically gendered nature of poverty, we are also pointing out how weaponising the plight of low- or unwaged parents and carers to increase demand for low-quality, low-paid, jobs undermines the interests of waged workers and jobseekers generally.

Obviously, this is not an argument for pushing mothers, or any parents, out of the “workforce” and back into the home – second-wave feminists rightly denounced the division of labour that left so many women isolated, depressed and trapped in financial dependency and emotional self-abnegation. The “wages for housework” campaign at that time was also widely misunderstood as endorsing that division of labour rather than, as it were, bringing domestic work out of the shadows as economic labour, both to dissolve the essentialist conceptions of femininity which served to mystify the relations of (re)production governing childcare and other unwaged labour, but also to win more autonomy over the conditions of that labour, e.g. by claiming the resources needed to socialise it through self-organised community nurseries and other facilities. In that sense, it is not a demand to extend the commodification of labour power so much as to partially liberate this sphere of human activity.

It is hoped that the arguments outlined above can inform the strategic thinking of groups building campaigns around welfare. Reactive demands that are limited to resisting cuts or making benefits easier to claim will make little impression on the punitive design of Universal Credit, because it is intended to be a disciplinary tool. Neither will they go far to challenge the individualistic understandings which position claimants as a burden on those who strive for “self-sufficiency”, or offer an alternative to the narrative that positions children as a private luxury which should only be “acquired” by those who can afford to pay for it, and disability as a social death sentence. Indeed, the “tweaks” to Universal Credit which we are seeing and likely to see through the current implementation stage – whilst undoubtedly welcome to many – will be largely driven by the need to hone UC’s disciplinary and ideological functions, improving the “fit” between the benefits system and the exploitative work patterns into which claimants are forced, and sharpening the ideological determination of “deserving” versus “undeserving claimants.

Unlike the original Wages for Housework demand, which arguably had a largely consciousness-raising function, the current crisis of (social) reproduction is such that we have a responsibility to put flesh on our demands. At the very least, we must demand abolition of sanctions and the Work Capability Assessment; that benefit levels are high enough that no-one is forced to take up or remain in waged work just to maintain an adequate quality of life; that the cost of raising children is fully collectivised and the labour of childcare and other care work both in and beyond the domestic sphere is properly recompensed; and that anyone with a disability should have an unconditional right to an income comparable to a decent wage, plus the additional costs of living with a disability. Yet, it is immediately apparent that such demands are, necessarily, somewhat utopian. So how do we hold the tension between what demands are practically winnable (and therefore save lives) in the shorter term, the longer-term compositional potential of a struggle around welfare, and the “horizon” of full collectivisation and freedom from “work”?

More immediately, we need to think about how we organise and with whom, and what tactics can be used to what effect. Solidarity between waged and unwaged workers is essential, and not only because millions of waged workers are themselves dependent on “top-up” benefits. A sole focus on the wage as normally conceptualised is inherently discriminatory, divisive and sexist and is far too narrow a way of understanding class interests; but also ignores the pressing need to develop new forms of antagonistic intervention beyond – and complementary to – the withholding of waged labour. What these may be, what forms of organisation they imply and what is needed to sustain them will be the subject of further articles, which we hope will stimulate engagement from others active in this area.



4 years 11 months ago

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Submitted by Spikymike on June 7, 2019

I read this a while back and thought it one of the better Plan C postings but ''Yet, it is immediately apparent that such demands are, necessarily, somewhat utopian. So how.....'' stuck in my mind the first time round as highlighting the recurring problem which minority pro-revolutionary groups aspiring to be the leadership of struggles with programmes of supposedly 'transitionary demands' are forced to face. It will be interesting to see how Plan C try to manage to square this circle if they do?

R Totale

4 years 11 months ago

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Submitted by R Totale on June 7, 2019

Another piece here, if a bit more "scrappy":