How our benefits system was hollowed out over 10 years (2023)

If we’d stuck with the social security we had a decade ago, 1.5 million fewer people would be living in poverty

Our social security system looks very different to how it did 10 years ago. While a few changes have been for the better, overall our social safety net has got significantly weaker in terms of level of support provided. Cuts have reduced the ability of the system to support incomes during the current economic downturn, by taking £14bn out of the welfare system since 2010/​11, falling to £7bn if the uplift is maintained.

Our new analysis has found that, come April, the poorest 20% of households, both in or out of work, will be £750 a year (6%) worse off than they would have been back in 2010. We’ve found that if the system inherited by the coalition government had been maintained, 1.5 million fewer people would be in poverty. Maintaining the £20 uplift in universal credit and tax credits would go some way to reversing the reduction in payments to households over the past 10 years — but even with the uplift, the poorest households will still be on average £260 a year (2%) worse off than they would have been under the 2010 system, whether in or out of paid work.

As millions have become unemployed over the last year, and millions more are furloughed on reduced pay, our social security system should be playing an important role in supporting incomes throughout the crisis. The most recent data (for September to November 2020) shows an estimated 1.7 million people are officially unemployed, with 4.1 million temporarily away from work”. Of the latter, over a quarter of a million were away from work because of the pandemic and receiving no pay. Many people have been excluded from the furlough and self-employment support schemes: for example the Resolution Foundation found that 500,000 self-employed people were without work and not receiving support last September. And these figures are set to worsen, with unemployment expected to reach 2.6 million in the middle of 2021.

And while the furlough scheme has protected many incomes through the crisis, in 2020 52% of furloughed people ended up on less than minimum wage. This is because furlough only protects 80% of income, and those on lower wages are more likely to be furloughed, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The social security system has picked up the slack, with the number of people on universal credit more than doubling from 2.7 million in December 2019 to 5.9 million in December 2020. Many of these claimants are using the system to supplement low incomes, with 40% of universal credit claimants in work.

“… our social security system should be playing an important role in supporting incomes throughout the crisis”

Social security spending overall has grown throughout the pandemic as unemployment has risen, just as it has through prior recessions. It is natural that spending has risen during the downturn, in order to protect and stabilise incomes. But although the number of people relying on welfare has risen during the pandemic, the level of support per person is still significantly lower than it was at the start of the decade (even with the government’s temporary £20 uplift to universal credit and working tax credit).

This is due to a range of government decisions about social security aimed at reducing its overall cost over the last 10 years. These include freezes to the payment levels, a cap on the maximum benefits a household can receive, a limit on the number of children a family can claim support for, limits to the local housing allowance, and means testing of child benefit. And there has been a significant shift towards conditionality for claimants, with increasing use of sanctions if conditions are not met. The sanctions regime has been criticised as one of the most punitive in the world.

These decisions have impacted the lowest-income households most of all. Our new analysis has found that if the 2010/​11 benefits system had been maintained in real terms, instead of being made more punitive, people would be on average much better off and the system would be much more effective in supporting incomes and stabilising the economy. This is true even if the £20 uplift to universal credit and working tax credits is maintained, although the uplift does mitigate some of the cuts. We drew inspiration from similar previous analysis by the Resolution Foundation in 2019 and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) in 2020 (for full details of our analysis, see the methodology notes at the end). This analysis is not meant to illustrate a desire to return to our old system, simply to set the current system in context.

Our results show that on average, people across the income distribution are worse off as a result of changes to the social security system over the last decade. These figures are particularly striking because they do not just show those who receive any particular benefit: on average all income quintiles of the population are worse off (see Figure 1 below). The lowest fifth of earners are on average 6% worse off, or receiving £750 less a year, compared to the 2010/​11 system — and are still worse off even if the £20 uplift is maintained. Higher earners are worse off compared to where they would have been mainly due to the introduction of child benefit means testing for high earners. For the highest fifth of earners, £580 of the £600 shortfall compared with the 2010 system is explained by the introduction of means testing for child benefit. Overall, we found that if the 2010/​11 benefits system had been maintained, there would be 540,000 fewer households in absolute poverty, including 830,000 adults and 700,000 children, compared to the expected benefits system next year.

Figure 1: Families on lower incomes are much worse off under the current system compared with the system in 2010, even with the £20 uplift

The impacts also vary significantly by family type and work status. On average, out-of-work families have lost £1,160 in annual income due to changes to the benefit system since 2010 (see Table 1). This figure reduces to £440 if the £20 uplift stays in place. Working families have also lost out, with a £460 reduction compared to if the 2010 benefits system was in place. Similarly, this reduces to £240 if the £20 uplift remains.

Many families are currently struggling, but for different reasons. In general, those with children are now much worse off than they would have been under the 2010/​11 system. But those without children did not, on average, have access to the necessary incomes needed to live at a socially acceptable standard even at the start of the decade — and still don’t now.

Single parents in particular are much worse off, losing an average of £2,700 a year if they are not in work, and an average of £1,100 a year if they are. For couples with children the respective figures are £2,450 and £1,250.

Table 1: Single parents and couples with children lose out the most, on average, compared to the 2010/​11 benefit system, with and without the £20 uplift

Change in annual disposable income in cash and % comparing the 2010/​11 system to the UK’s current safety net and a continuation of the £20 per week uplift (respectively), by family type containing those of working age in 2021/​22

Without £20 uplift

At least one household member working

Not working

Annual income loss

% income loss

Annual income loss

% income loss

Couple with children





Couple without children





Single with children





Single without children





All families





With £20 uplift

At least one household member working

Not working

Annual income loss

% income loss

Annual income loss

% income loss

Couple with children





Couple without children





Single with children





Single without children





All families





Source: NEF calculations using the Family Resources Survey and the IPPR tax benefit model

And while the level of social security support has fallen, the cost of living has been rising over the last decade. In fact, the gap between average incomes for out-of-work families compared to the minimum income standard — a measure of what is needed to live a socially acceptable quality of life in the UK — has been widening. As illustrated by Figure 2, this is the case regardless of whether people have children or not, are single or are in a couple — though the effect is most pronounced for people without children.

Figure 2: The gap between cost of living and income required for a socially acceptable standard has widened over the last decade for out of work families containing working-age people compared to incomes

As Figure 3 shows, for single people without children, this has been a particular struggle. For them, income as a proportion of socially acceptable living standards was low at the start of the decade (52% in 2012) — and on average this has dropped to just 42% by 2020, even with the £20 uplift. (Note that this figure is for gross income and therefore underestimates the gap.).

Figure 3: The cost of living has been rising while the incomes of people out of work have more or less remained frozen over the last decade

Having a weaker system of welfare provision is concerning for two reasons. Firstly, many families are struggling to put food on the table. This was true prior to the pandemic, with the Trussell Trust reporting foodbank usage increasing across their networks by 73% between 2015/​16 and 2019/​20, but usage has further increased during the pandemic: in April 2020 there was an 89% increase in number of emergency food parcels given out than the previous year.

And secondly, we are in a sharp downturn, with an annual GDP fall of 9.9% in 2020 — the largest yearly fall on record. During downturns, social security has a vital role in boosting spending by targeting payments towards those at the bottom end of the income distribution. The government itself recognised that these historical cuts limit the ability of the social security system to provide a stabilisation role during the economic crisis, and responded with £20 temporary uplifts to the universal credit and working tax credit main elements. But this is far from enough, and is due to be removed at the end of March. Changes to working age benefits modelled have taken £14 billion out of the welfare system since 2010/​11, falling to £7 billion if the uplift is maintained.

Successive government policy decisions over the last decade have significantly hollowed out the social security system. At the very least the government should maintain the £20 uplift and extend it to legacy benefits. But it is increasingly clear that this will not be enough on its own to protect incomes or stabilise the economy. Although we are not at all suggesting the government returns to the 2010 system, which was a fragmented and confusing system, it must go further to ensure the UK’s safety net is fit for purpose, both now, and for the future.

People in the UK need a living income, to make sure all of us can have a decent standard of living. A living income should have a minimum income guarantee at its heart, making sure that everyone has enough money to live a decent life. With a minimum income guarantee, everyone who needs it would receive at least £227 a week throughout the rest of the pandemic – making the UK economy stronger, bringing money back into local communities and making sure everyone has enough to thrive, not just survive.


The analysis looks at the effects of the current benefits system on household incomes compared to 2010. It does this by comparing outcomes under the current 2021/​22 benefits system to a situation where all universal credit claimants are instead on the legacy benefits that universal credit is replacing, namely: housing benefit, income support, jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), employment and support allowance (ESA), working tax credit (WTC) and child tax credit. Furthermore, child benefit is also restored to how it operated in 2010. On top of this, policy decisions related to these benefits in the 2010 – 2020 period are reversed. This includes: changes to child tax credit eligibility, removing the benefits cap, removing the bedroom tax, reversing benefit freezes, removing means tested child benefit, keeping the work-related activity component of the employment and support allowance (ESA) and removing the time limit, removing the two-child limit from child tax credits and keeping the family element. Benefits freezes were reversed by adjusting 2010 level payments by consumer price index (CPI) inflation due to the government move to CPI over retail price index (RPI) for uprating in 2010. Results were obtained using the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) tax-benefit model. Caps on local housing allowance could not be changed due to limitations of the model.

Comparisons to the £20 uplift take into account the £20 uplift to universal credit and £20 uplift to WTC, and do not include legacy benefits.

Results are shown in 2021/​22 prices, by benefit unit.

Poverty figures reported are absolute poverty figures, showing the proportion of households with disposable income below 60% of the 2010/​11 median wage, after household costs.

Figure 2 uses a four-year rolling average of the minimum income standard (MIS) and average income for different family types. The rolling average is used to account for methodological changes in how the MIS is calculated, with the composition of goods updated on a four-yearly basis. To match this approach, a four-year average is used for average incomes as well, which to some extent masks the £20 universal credit uplift but provides a fairer long-term comparison. MIS figures for those with children are specifically for two children (one aged 2 – 4; one primary school age) whereas average income figures with children include any family size.

Image: Pexels


When were benefits cut UK? ›

So benefit claimants are already enduring a real-terms cut? Yes. The April 2022 uprating was the biggest fall in the real value of the basic rate of unemployment benefits in 50 years, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).

When did benefits change to universal credit? ›

Universal Credit is replacing six existing benefits including both working tax credit and child tax credit. This page explains the background to UC from its beginnings in 2009 to the Welfare Reform Act 2012 that introduced it as a new benefit in a major overhaul of the benefits system.

Has the Welfare Reform Act 2012 been successful? ›

On employment, welfare reforms do appear overall to have led to small positive impacts. The benefit cap has led to those affected being more likely to move into work – with around one in five finding work, rising to 30 per cent of those with the largest losses.

Why are there issues with the welfare state? ›

The main disadvantage of a welfare state – and the main reason behind recent welfare reforms – is that it leads to higher tax rates for the country's citizens and significant governmental expenditure. Critics of the welfare system also say it can encourage high unemployment and low productivity.

What percentage of Brits are on benefits? ›

Share of households receiving benefits in the United Kingdom in 2020/21, by region
CharacteristicShare of households
United Kingdom52%
North East60%
Yorkshire and The Humber57%
9 more rows
4 Apr 2022

How many Brits are on benefits? ›

DWP benefits by number of claimants at August 2020
BenefitNumber of claimants
Universal Credit5,571,000
Housing Benefit3,046,000
Personal Independence Payment2,572,000
Employment and Support Allowance1,885,000
7 more rows
23 Feb 2021

Is Universal Credit getting scrapped 2022? ›

Your claim will not be changed over to UC straight away. Until at least 2022 and as late as 2026 (or later owing to the coronavirus outbreak), you should remain on the same benefit unless you have a change of circumstances which means that you would need to make a new claim for a means-tested benefit.

Why would they stop Universal Credit? ›

If your payment is stopped or reduced

If you do not meet your responsibilities or what you've agreed in your Claimant Commitment, your Universal Credit could be stopped or reduced. This is called a sanction. There are different levels of sanctions and they're decided based on what you did and how often.

Are all benefits going to be Universal Credit? ›

Universal Credit is replacing the following benefits and tax credits: Child Tax Credit. Housing Benefit. Income Support.

How has welfare changed over time? ›

The nation's welfare caseload has seen a historically unprecedented decline, from 5 million families in 1994 to 2.2 million in June 2000. Child poverty has also fallen, but welfare participation has fallen much more rapidly.

When was the last welfare reform? ›

The 1996 welfare reform law represents a fundamental shift in how the federal government provides support to destitute families. Under pre-1996 law, low-income families were entitled to a package of welfare benefits that included cash, food stamps, and Medicaid.

What was the main change in welfare policies since 1996? ›

The main change in welfare policies since 1996 is: increases use of non-cash assistance. Approximately what percentage of the current federal budget is spent on entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare?

What states depend the most on welfare? ›

Most Federally Dependent States
RankStateTotal Score
4West Virginia78.08
46 more rows
15 Mar 2022

What states require the most welfare? ›

Public Welfare State Expenditures Per Capita in 2020
RankStateFIPS Code
3New York36000
4New Mexico35000
46 more rows

Why is welfare lost? ›

Welfare loss of taxation refers to a decrease in economic and social well-being caused by the imposition of a new tax. It is the total cost to society incurred just by the process of transferring purchasing power from taxpayers to the taxing authority.

Who receives the most benefits in the UK? ›

1. Main facts and figures
  • 51% of families in the UK received a type of state support, such as the State Pension or Child Benefit, in the 3 years to March 2021.
  • white British families were the most likely to receive state support, and families from the Chinese ethnic group were the least likely to.
12 Jul 2022

How generous are UK benefits? ›

placing the United Kingdom 24th highest. Spending on cash benefits for people of pension age was 5.6% of GDP compared to the OECD average of 7.0%, while spending on payments to people of working age (Chart 3) was 3.9% of GDP compared to the average of 4.5%. In both these areas, the UK ranked 27th in the OECD.

Why are so many people in the UK on benefits? ›

The initial growth stemmed largely from an increase in the number of single mothers and an additional entitlement to disability benefits. Later increases in the number of claimants, including in the early 1980s, were fueled by a rise in unemployment and precarious work.

Which country has the most generous benefits system? ›

One of our politicians' most frequent boasts is that welfare provision in the UK is the most generous in the world. Indeed, many other industrialised countries closely imitated the changes that were implemented following the Beveridge Report at the time.

How many pensioners only have State Pension? ›

“The mystery of the missing pensioners” – why are so many older people getting zero state pension? According to latest population estimates there are 8.78 million people in Great Britain aged seventy or over, but only 8.53 million receiving a state pension – a difference of a quarter of a million people.

How do UK benefits compared to Europe? ›

Looking at total social expenditure, the UK ranks just above the EU average, but again below France, Germany, Italy and the Eurozone mean (in terms of spending per inhabitant). However this includes both public and private spending on welfare, capturing private pensions and health spending, for example.

Will Universal Credit ever stop? ›

You will continue to receive Universal Credit until your earnings are high enough, at which point your payments will stop. That amount will depend on your circumstances.

What is the disadvantage of Universal Credit? ›

The Universal Credit debt trap

The experience of Universal Credit is made even worse by design features which push people into debt: There is a five week waiting period for a first payment, which forces many people to take on debt to cover essential or unexpected costs, at the very start of their claim.

What are the new rules on Universal Credit? ›

Under the chancellor's reform, which takes effect in January 2023, this requirement will now be extended to people on universal credit working up to 15 hours a week at the National Living Wage. The change will affect about 120,000 more benefit claimants.

How to get Universal Credit Loophole $1,500? ›

Advance Payment

You can apply for an advance payment in your online account or through your Jobcentre Plus work coach. You will need to: explain why you need an advance. verify your identity (you do this when you apply online or on the phone with a work coach)

Is PIP changing to Universal Credit? ›

How does Universal Credit affect PIP and DLA? If you're getting Personal Independence Payment (PIP) or Disability Living Allowance (DLA), it will continue to be paid along with your Universal Credit payment. PIP is gradually replacing the Disability Living Allowance.

Is Housing Benefit being abolished? ›

As Housing Benefit is being abolished, Pension Credit will include a new housing credit to help towards rent. This may not happen until 2023 at the earliest. As Child Tax Credit is being abolished, Pension Credit now includes additional amounts for dependent children.

What six benefits does Universal Credit replacing? ›

It replaces six older benefits – child tax credit, working tax credit, housing benefit, income support, income-based job-seeker's allowance (JSA) and income-related employment and support allowance (ESA) – with a modern system.

What is classed as low income UK 2022? ›

In 2022, low pay is defined as those earning below £9.85 per hour and high pay is defined as those earning more than £22.16.

How many times can you get an advance on Universal Credit? ›

The cost of your advance will need to be spread across your monthly Universal Credit payments. This means you could receive 25 payments in 24 months or 13 payments in 12 months depending on when you applied.

Has welfare increased or decreased? ›

From 1996 to 2021, the monthly caseload decreased by 82% nationwide and 73% in California. The state has tried to loosen work restrictions over the years, as similar efforts at the federal level have stalled.

What are the biggest problems with welfare? ›

Listed below are prevalent issues surrounding welfare in the United States.
  • The poverty rate hasn't lowered despite welfare growth.
  • Welfare's impact is poorly measured.
  • Extreme poverty is often missed.
  • Cash versus in-kind benefits.
  • Complexity, of multiple programs and “red tape” versus a simplified system.

What are the main barriers to welfare programs now? ›

These barriers include addictions, disabled children, emotional illnesses, domestic violence, lack of work experience, and poor education. Several states are now developing programs to help these families, but a major question that looms is whether cash welfare will be needed for more than 5 years for such mothers.

Which president brought in welfare? ›

Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt focused mainly on creating jobs for the masses of unemployed workers, he also backed the idea of federal aid for poor children and other dependent persons. By 1935, a national welfare system had been established for the first time in American history.

How long can Americans stay on welfare? ›

The 60-month time limit on federal assistance applies nationwide, but not all families on welfare are subject to the limit. The survey of states found that about 55 percent of all families currently on welfare are subject to the federal 60-month time limit.

Which president was responsible for devolving social welfare programs to states? ›

During the Reagan Administration the focus changed, and block grants became a vehicle for shrinking the role of the Federal Government and devolving responsibility for financing and administering domestic assistance programs to state and local jurisdictions.

What changed as a result of the welfare reform Act 2012? ›

The most significant reform introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012 was Universal Credit, a benefit which is still in the process of replacing six existing means-tested benefits and tax credits for working-age households.

Has welfare reform been successful? ›

Welfare reform, in tandem with refundable tax credits for workers, helped to bring about a permanent, 10-percentage-point drop in child poverty. The child poverty rate—the proportion of all U.S. children living in families below the poverty line—in 1993 was 29 percent, unchanged from 29 percent in 1967.

Does welfare still exist in the US? ›

Welfare or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a federally funded, state-run benefits program. Also known as welfare, TANF helps families achieve independence after experiencing temporary difficulties.

Which states take more federal money than they pay? ›

States Most Dependent on the Federal Government
RankStateFederal Share of State Revenue
1West Virginia45.16%
2New Mexico41.80%
6 more rows
20 Apr 2022

What state takes the most federal money? ›

State Federal Dependency Ranking
RankStateFed Fund % of State Revenues
1New Mexico32.06%
2West Virginia34.07%
47 more rows

Who is most likely to be on welfare? ›

Almost 73% of TANF recipients in the U.S. are children. SNAP is the largest welfare program in the U.S. 24 million children use welfare every month.

What race is on food stamps the most 2022? ›

SNAP recipients represent different races and/or ethnicities. White: about 37 percent; African American: 26 percent; Hispanic: 16 percent; Asian: 3 percent; and Native American: about 2 percent. (About 16 percent of participants are categorized as “race unknown.”) Many SNAP households have earned income.

What state is the easiest to get welfare? ›

Here are the 10 states with the most welfare recipients:
  • Louisiana - 17,182 per 100k.
  • Mississippi - 14,881 per 100k.
  • Oklahoma - 14,487 per 100k.
  • Alabama - 14,168 per 100k.
  • Illinois - 13,888 per 100k.
  • Oregon - 13,525 per 100k.
  • Pennsylvania - 13,353 per 100k.
  • Rhode Island - 13,341 per 100k.

What is the average welfare check in the US? ›

SSI is a program that helps American adults cover basic expenses such as food and shelter. Unlike Social Security SSI is a need-based federal aid program, which does not require a worker to pay into it. The average monthly SSI payment stood at 617 dollars in 2021.

Does tax decrease welfare? ›

Taxation reduces consumer and producer surplus, and thus economic welfare.

What is the triangle of welfare loss? ›

An area on a graph showing the extent of allocative efficiency.

Does tax decrease total welfare? ›

A tax on a good reduces the welfare of buyers and sellers of the good, and the reduction in consumer and producer surplus usually exceeds the revenues raised by the government. The fall in total surplus—the sum of consumer surplus, producer surplus, and tax revenue — is called the deadweight loss of the tax.

When did Universal Credit cut? ›

When will the cut happen? As it stands, the government is set to slash benefits by £20 a week - equivalent to £1,040 a year - from 6 October. The exact date people will see the cut kick in will depend on the day they get their Universal Credit payment.

When did Child Benefit stop in the UK? ›

Your Child Benefit stops on 31 August on or after your child's 16th birthday if they leave education or training. It continues if they stay in approved education or training, but you must tell the Child Benefit Office. You'll be sent a letter in your child's last year at school asking you to confirm their plans.

When did family benefit end? ›

Family benefits were abolished on 1 April 1991. Before 2018, they were partly replaced by more targeted allowances for low-income families until the introduction of the BestStart Payment.

When was Universal Credit reduced? ›

What this cut will mean for you. If you receive Universal Credit, your payment will be reduced by £20 a week after 6 October. If you receive Working Tax Credit: Your payments will have already been reduced by an equivalent amount since April 2021.

Why is Universal Credit so little? ›

Your Universal Credit might be reduced if: you've reported a change of circumstances that means you'll get less - for example, you've moved home or you're paying back an advance payment, hardship payment or budgeting advance. you've been sanctioned - find out what to do if you've been sanctioned.

How far back can HMRC claim Child Benefit? ›

It can take up to 16 weeks to process a new Child Benefit claim (or longer if you're new to the UK). Child Benefit can be backdated for up to 3 months.

Do benefits stop if child is 5? ›

Once your youngest child reaches age 5 your entitlement to Income Support may stop if you're only claiming it because you're a lone parent.

When did the 50k Child Benefit start? ›

The High Income Child Benefit Charge ( HICBC ) was introduced in January 2013, it is a tax charge that applies to anyone with an income over £50,000 who gets Child Benefit, or whose partner gets it.

Why would they stop Child Benefit? ›

Your payments may have stopped because: you have not told the Child Benefit Office your bank has changed or about your child's education plans after they turn 16. you have not replied to a letter from the Child Benefit Office. your child now lives with someone else.

What is the invalids benefit called now? ›

The sickness benefit is a weekly payment that helps people who are temporarily off work or working at a reduced level because of sickness, an injury, pregnancy, or a disability.

What is the maximum family benefit limit? ›

Bottom Line. The Social Security Administration limits the maximum benefit that can be paid to a single family. In most cases, this amount will be equal to between 150% and 180% of the benefit that would be paid to the primary breadwinner upon reaching full retirement age.

What 6 benefits did Universal Credit replace? ›

It replaces six older benefits – child tax credit, working tax credit, housing benefit, income support, income-based job-seeker's allowance (JSA) and income-related employment and support allowance (ESA) – with a modern system.

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