Stress for couples on Universal Credit as living costs soar – new research

Wednesday 26th Jan 2022, 9.40am

Report reveals the tough choices faced by couples in receipt of Universal Credit.

Fluctuations in income from month to month and low levels of out of work benefits are placing significant stress and strain on couples with joint claims for Universal Credit, according to researchers from the Universities of Bath and Oxford – leading to further concerns about those on how low incomes will cope as living costs soar.

Today’s report gives findings from the first independently-funded research to focus on couples on Universal Credit in particular, based on in-depth interviews with claimants over time.

Social security should provide real security…[but] We found the assumptions behind Universal Credit often did not fit the realities of claimants’ lives, especially for couples. This will cause more stress…as they face…soaring bills and tighter budgets. A rethink is urgently required

Professor Fran Bennett

Fran Bennett, associate fellow of Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention, and an author of the report, says, ‘The clue’s in the name: social security should provide real security.

‘But amongst our interviewees on Universal Credit, couples with an earner often suffered instability from frequent fluctuations in income due to the monthly means test – a risk that was doubled if they had two earners. And many couples with no one in work struggled with inadequate income levels, especially if they were young or had deductions from their Universal Credit for debts.

‘We found the assumptions behind Universal Credit often did not fit the realities of claimants’ lives, especially for couples. This will cause more stress for families as they face a future of soaring bills and tighter budgets. A rethink is urgently required.’

  • The research finds couples can suffer big swings in income each month because, for most of those in work, earnings received in any one month are taken into account for Universal Credit regardless of the period covered by the earnings. This volatility is increased for couples with two earners, particularly when paid child care is also involved.
  • For those with no earnings, the research identifies a major issue in terms of the inadequacy of income from Universal Credit, especially for those with debt repayments, and the under-25s who receive a lower standard allowance. The insecurity of income and the inadequacy of income for those out of work could adversely affect mental well-being and the stability of relationships.  

Drawing on insights from in-depth interviews with claimants in 2018/19 and 2020*, the authors suggest there is a mismatch between how the government envisaged Universal Credit would change behaviour and how recipients are experiencing and responding to it in practice.

  • Findings also include concerns over the difficulties around claiming help with childcare costs…his meant that some parents avoided using paid child care altogether, while others struggled because of a gap between childcare costs and the financial help available.
  • The ongoing monthly means test also causes problems for working couples. If earnings rose for one or both partners, their increased joint earnings not only reduce their Universal Credit but also often resulted in loss of entitlement to other forms of means-tested help, including support with council tax and free school meals.
  • The volatility of incomes meant some recipients had to turn to foodbanks or to family for help. Some women in couples reduced their working hours or left their jobs to try to keep the household income steady. Rather than helping people to stay in work and increase their hours, the Universal Credit rules could make this more difficult.

Rather than helping people to stay in work and increase their hours, the Universal Credit rules could make this more difficult

But, the researchers found, some couples appreciated receiving a higher Universal Credit award if their earnings decreased because of illness or part-time work. Others earned as much as they could to try to come off Universal Credit; but those with children found the long hours needed because of their low pay could create real tensions with their family life. 

The researchers also suggest the single payment of Universal Credit made to couples, and the obligation to label one parent as ‘lead carer’, were often seen as out of line with modern family life.

This work was funded by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) (ES/R004811/1). This is the final report from the research.
*For the research, two waves of in-depth interviews were carried out approximately two years apart. The first phase of the research comprised 123 individual and joint face-to-face interviews with 90 Universal Credit joint claimants in 53 households, in four areas in England and Scotland, between June 2018 and January 2019. Follow-up interviews were conducted by telephone (due to COVID-19) with 63 participants in 39 households between August and October 2020.
For the longitudinal analysis, the sample of 39 households was categorised according to their earner status into three main groups at (or in a few cases before) the interviews in 2018/19: two-earner couples (10 households), one-earner couples (13 households) and no-earner couples (16 households).
Drawing on longitudinal data from 157 interview transcripts, the researchers tracked employment transitions over time, and the reasons for this. For each couple, they produced a detailed case summary which examined continuity and change in employment status, gender roles and couple relationships. These case summaries were then analysed to identify themes and drawn on to write the report.
Couples Navigating Work, Care and Universal Credit – Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath (January 2022) is authored by Rita Griffiths (Bath), Jane Millar (Bath), Marsha Wood (Bath) and Fran Bennett (Oxford). See