Universal Credit and relationship dissolution

The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice has published an article by Rita Griffiths titled ‘For better or for worse: does the UK means-tested social security system encourage partnership dissolution?

Unemployed and low-income couples entitled to means-tested benefits are known to have higher rates of separation and divorce than couples in which one or both partners are in regular, paid work. However, how and why unemployment and benefit receipt increases the risk of partnership dissolution remains the subject of much debate. In recent policy discourse, financial differentials in benefit entitlement between lone and couple parents are said to encourage intact couples to separate. Based on in-depth, face-to-face interviews with a group of low-income mothers who had been partnered prior to claiming lone parent benefits, this paper explores whether benefit entitlement or receipt influenced the decision to separate or divorce. The research found that more salient to partnership dissolution than the amount of benefits a couple may have been entitled to, was who had access to the money, how it was managed and how it was spent. To the extent that welfare systems influence which member of a couple has access to household income, the design and administration of benefits was having an important contributory effect. Policy implications of paying Universal Credit to couples in the form of a single monthly household award into one bank account are discussed.

The authors conclude:

By providing new empirical insights into the unintended ways in which the design and administration of social security benefits can indirectly affect relationship dynamics in couples, findings strengthen the case in favour of reforming UC in ways which increase the financial independence of women and men who live together, or would like to. The Scottish government has been consulting on different ways in which UC could be paid to couples, for example by splitting the benefit equally by default or by allocating the full amount, or a larger percentage of the award, to the partner with primary caring responsibility. In Northern Ireland joint-claim couples can choose either to have the UC award paid into a single or joint account, or equally split between two bank accounts. However, in England and Wales, alternative payment arrangements for couples remain at the discretion of a Department for Work and Pensions decision maker and only in proven situations of domestic abuse or serious financial mismanagement.8 UC thus sends deeply contradictory messages to women and couples who live together. That claiming UC can oblige one member of a couple to be financially dependent on the other, and subject to the consequences of his or her partner’s behaviour, flies in the face of UC’s stated policy aims of promoting self-reliance and supporting claimants from ‘welfare dependence’ to independence. If further inroads are to be made in terms of ensuring that means-tested social security benefits facilitate the economic empowerment of all claimants, addressing such fundamental contractions will be key.