A lot of people who access Body & Soul’s services are living in poverty. This is a source of great stress and anxiety in itself, but often they must also battle the Department for Work and Pensions to secure some kind of financial stability. It is on this ‘battleground’ that caseworkers like me try to give a voice to those most vulnerable in our society. However I sometimes find myself asking: does our current welfare system enable people to fulfill their potential or does it encourage them to languish in a perpetual cycle of dependency and poverty?
Currently within the welfare system there is a broad distinction between unemployment benefit and disability benefit. There are, I feel, some perverse consequences that follow from this model. For example, in order to assess whether someone is eligible for disability benefits, a Work Capability Assessment (WCA) has been put in place. This creates a bizarre and unhealthy situation whereby claimants must ‘prove’ to assessors that they cannot work. The numerous failings of such a system have been identified in a recent publication by the think tank Reform, which points out that the binary ‘pass/fail’ nature of the WCA is highly stressful for the claimants because a ‘good’ result can result in a more generous level of support and vice versa. Many Body & Soul members that I have worked with report feeling very anxious, fearing they may not end up with the support they need.
One of the groups that Body & Soul works with is people living with HIV. In this group in particular it is clear that the WCA, taking place on a single day, cannot take into account the fluctuating nature of the illness – HIV can present itself in less visible, episodic symptoms, as well as mental health issues that may be undetectable on a ‘good day’. For example, some members have been assessed as ‘fit to work’ while suffering from constant headaches, chronic pain and dizziness.
Furthermore, the sharp distinction between disability benefits and unemployment benefits means there can be a tendency for claimants to ‘park’ themselves in a certain welfare group. For example, it is often advantageous for claimants to remain in the support group of the Employment Support Allowance benefit rather than the work-related activity group because they do not have to participate in work-focused interviews or work-related activity. With some claimants it is entirely appropriate to remain in the support group. For others, it means they are left to stagnate and remain impoverished because they lack self-esteem or are too anxious to take the risk of restarting employment. This is why Body & Soul aims to prepare its members for the best job opportunities by providing situation-specific courses in areas such as IT, job searching, resilience and employment support.
In the same publication, Reform suggests a simplified system under the new Universal Credit benefit. This would mean having a single benefit under a single rate whereby a “claimant’s reason for being out of the labour market (unemployment, sickness or disability, caring) would not affect benefit eligibility” (p.18). Whether this reform would make life easier and fairer for some of our members at Body & Soul is difficult to tell. I do not think going onto benefits will ever be free from stigma, stress and anxiety. However, this does not mean we cannot try to create a fairer, more personalised system in which all claimants’ needs are taken into consideration and where claimants aren’t left to languish in poverty.