THE BLOG

Waking Up to Reality on Welfare Reform

02/04/2014 17:13 BST | Updated 02/06/2014 10:59 BST

One year on from the implementation of the many changes to benefits brought about by the Welfare Reform Act, today is an opportune moment to reflect on the success - or otherwise - of the coalition's flagship agenda. Our experience providing advice, employment and community services in Newham, East London has shown clearly the need for shake-up of the social security system: we've been calling for this for decades. It's essential that we get this right, and therefore it's essential that we check in on the real impacts on real people.

Speaking this week at nearby Tilbury Docks, the chancellor George Osborne pledged to aim for full employment, and suggested that "reforming welfare" was a key way to achieve this. It's a pledge that we welcome - employment makes a huge difference to the lives of people we work with. But the benefit cuts currently being implemented as part of welfare reform are achieving the opposite effect, and forcing some people further away from work.

Last Friday's news that only 6% of people hit by the spare room subside or "bedroom tax" have actually downsized -casts serious doubts on the success of this key element of the welfare reform agenda. Such a low proportion of people successfully moving makes a mockery of the objectives of "encouraging greater mobility within the social rented sector" and "making better use of available social housing stock". The bedroom tax has not only failed in those positive aims but has introduced chaos and disruption into people's lives: four times more people -28% of those affected -- have been pushed into rent arrears than have moved into a smaller property.

A very similar story is panning out in relation to employment. To understand the scale of the changes, we at Community Links have undertaken in-depth research into how people in our community are affected - not just financially but also in terms of employment opportunities, family life, their health, wellbeing and resilience. Today we are publishing a research report which highlights how for many people, the cumulative effect of several simultaneous changes has left them less, rather than more, able to cope. The implications for George Osborne's ambition of "full employment" are clear, and alarming.

Far from "simplifying the system and making work pay" as the reforms intended, these changes have made many people less able to engage positively with work and have left some people coping with chaos. People we spoke to reported serious deterioration of physical and mental health, frequent skipping of meals, and some people turned to petty crime in order to manage. Reflecting a common perspective, one respondent said: "[These reforms have] made it fifty times worse for everybody. They've depressed the life out of me. They've made me so I'm suicidal."

Many people have been hit by several of the changes at once - from large increases in jobseeker sanctions to reassessments for all those on disability benefits; from the bedroom tax and benefit cap and now the new charge for council tax benefit. The blunt implementation of the reforms has done little to support those with the greatest barriers to work, and in many cases have made these barriers seem insurmountable. As one participant in our research said: "Who wouldn't want to make lots of money? For some people it just isn't possible." Poor communication about how people will be affected, along with a lack of support and a one-size-fits-all, inflexible approach has led to an erosion of resilience and made finding work more difficult.

Our investigation into the overall impact of the reforms tells the same story as the bedroom tax news: simply slicing at people's income is not an effective way to encourage positive behavioural change. Simply pushing at people with brutal reductions to their finances won't enable people to improve their situation. People are keen to engage and make changes, but the lack of guidance available presents a real barrier: "There's been no help. There's been no support. Every time I ask for help I come up against a brick wall."

This leads to a broader question: the relentless focus on individuals without looking at broader structural issues is an ineffective way to fix complex problems. The cutting of people's housing benefit via the bedroom tax has not addressed the fact that we simply don't have enough houses and property prices are skyrocketing. Enforcing stricter conditions on jobseekers or setting an absolute cap on what each family can receive doesn't address the fact that there remain four unemployed people per vacancy, or that employers are continuing to pay extremely low wages and increasing them only half as fast as prices rise. According to Newham Council's research, for example, 20% of workers in the borough say they earn less than the minimum wage.

Focusing so heavily on individuals, as the coalition's welfare reforms do, does nothing to address these structural issues, and the welfare cap enacted last week is set to further entrench this approach. It locks politicians into exchanging blows about which narrow individual-facing changes they would make, without considering broader structures--we saw Iain Duncan Smith start this the day after the cap was passed. The cap forces continued salami slicing of the finances of the poorest: something which our evidence shows won't help people, society or the public purse.

The fact that the most ambitious welfare reforms since 1945 are struggling to achieve their policy objectives should concern anyone who cares about building a better society. We need a more nuanced and supportive approach to reforming welfare - one which takes into account the variety of individuals circumstances and capabilities, and which supports people to navigate changes and improve their situations.