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Working for benefits: Deservingness and discrimination in the British social security system

Research output: Working paperWorking paper and Preprints

Original languageEnglish
DatePublished - 1 Jun 2019


In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the British welfare state came under systematic attack within a broader agenda of deregulation and austerity. As part of ETHOS Work Package 5 on justice as lived experience, this report explores what people understand to be the relation between means-tested working-age benefits and social justice. Its focus is on the impact of welfare retrenchment on three subordinated social categories: disabled persons, foreign nationals and young mothers. The research is based on documentary legal and policy analysis, secondary quantitative data, a literature review on political and media discourses of deservingness, as well as one interview and three focus groups with benefit claimants, activists and caseworkers. Each encounter lasted between 30 minutes and two hours. Most interviewees were recontacted after participating in previous ETHOS studies. All interviews were recorded, transcribed and, where necessary, translated into English.
Findings reveal an influential media and political discourse holding that insufficient motivation to work and other individual factors are to blame for poverty. Under the rule of Conservative-led Governments, this rhetoric provided a cover of legitimacy to coercive measures purporting to make employment more attractive than claiming benefits and instill work-related behaviour. While the principle of ‘less eligibility’ continues to enjoy broad support, upholding it in a context of increasing in-work poverty has meant plunging families into destitution, riddling them with debt, subjecting their daily lives to close scrutiny and making the conditions and process for claiming benefits increasingly onerous. By effect or by design, these impacts have exacerbated the subordination of disabled persons, foreign nationals and young mothers. Most disabled claimants have faced reduced allowances on the highly contested assumption that they would be able to participate in paid employment. Non-UK jobseekers have been imposed stringent conditions for retaining ‘worker’ and ‘resident’ status, including minimum earnings thresholds, compelling evidence of job prospects, language skills and social connections. Due to the scarcity of affordable childcare, single parents of young children, the vast majority of whom are women, have born the brunt of work-related conditionality. Interviews suggest that some of these impacts are more likely than others to be perceived as flagrant injustices. While migrants have proven willing to accept a degree of less favourable treatment, sometimes by comparing the inadequate support received in their countries of origin, gendered ideals of work and childcare have contributed to stronger opposition toward austerity measures targeting young mothers. Perhaps the most uniformly negative reactions were aroused by the procedural failures of an increasingly complex and automatised system modelled after a vanishing ‘standard’ employment relationship, whose foremost intention is to ensure that claimants do not receive any more than the amount to which they are entitled.
While sowing division and arousing interpersonal frustrations, benefit cutbacks have also sparked transformative forms of mobilisation. Non-discrimination provisions have provided a legal basis on which to challenge austerity, and specialist charities have been joined by statutory bodies in their support for claimants. International human rights bodies have played an active role in legitimating these cases by condemning in unusually strong terms the negative effects of benefit restrictions. Unions and job centre staff have allied with claimants to contest the Government’s insistence on making greater use of sanctions. Driven by an ideal of needs-based social assistance that furthers the interests of precariously employed workers, these alliances may become fertile ground for a renewed politics of social security.

    Structured keywords

  • Migration Mobilities Bristol
  • Perspectives on Work



  • Working for benefits

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