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TOPIC: The alleged simplicity of Universal Credit and the lived experience

The alleged simplicity of Universal Credit and the lived experience 04 Feb 2019 12:11 #13672

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The alleged simplicity of Universal Credit and the lived experience of benefit claimants

Kate Summers and David Young challenge the assumed simplicity of Universal Credit by focusing on its single monthly payment design. They draw on two empirical studies of means-tested benefit claimants in order to explain how short-termism is a crucial tool for those managing social security benefits.

2019 started with another announcement that Universal Credit (UC) is being reset and rethought. While some of the changes being introduced are welcome, piecemeal policymaking draws our attention away from the bigger picture. We want to return to one of the principles underpinning UC: simplicity. In his short introduction to Universal Credit in 2010, Iain Duncan Smith made it clear that simplifying the “complexity of the existing benefit system” is a central tenet of welfare reform. Complexity will be “cut through” and the system will be “streamlined”.

Currently, however, claims of simplicity can only be sustained if UC is considered at a superficial level: one monthly payment per household, delivered by the Department for Work and Pensions, with a single taper rate, and with the amount calculated and adjusted monthly. But if we consider the system in any detail and from a claimant perspective, claims of simplicity fall away.

Administrative simplicity

Administering a single payment that must account for multiple circumstances and contingencies shifts complexity behind the scenes. UC brings together six different means-tested benefits for people of working age, each with its own rules, entitlements and administration. As a new ‘all-in-one’ benefit, UC must encompass this complexity. Even when just looking at means-tested social security benefits, there are many reasons why people claim: unemployment, sickness, low-pay, childcare responsibilities, housing needs; within these broad contingencies are many other interacting reasons. By having an all-in-one working-age benefit that accounts for many contingencies, administrative complexity is inevitably shifted from front-stage to back-stage.

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