by Ruth Cain,  Senior Lecturer in the Kent Law School at the University of Kent.

The recent Conservative election victory has been swiftly followed by a reaffirmed commitment to sweeping welfare reforms, including the coalition government’s beleaguered flagship welfare system, Universal Credit (UC), now being rolled out across a limited number of local authorities in the UK.

Launched in April 2013 to be implemented from September 2014, UC claims tohelp ‘people prepare for work, move into work, or earn more’ by making benefits more like paid employment. For instance, it imposes a “claimant commitment” by using an employment-style “contract” with penalties for breaches.

Long before it has had the opportunity to make a measurable national impact on claimants, UC has already faced widespread criticism from women’s groups, landlords and single-parent advocacy groups, to name but a few.

UC represents a massive experiment in welfare governance, instituting sweeping “algorithmic regulation” whereby the tax and pay information of claimants, as well as their job-searching activity, can be continually surveyed online.

It will also mandate new forms of behavioural demands on claimants, whether they are out of work or not. For instance, the new Claimant Commitmentrequires “workless” claimants to devote a full 35-hour week to evidenced job searching supervised by their “work coach”.

In a new development known as “in-work conditionality”, UC requires claimants receiving less than the amount of a minimum-wage-job at 35 hours per week to seek “more or better paid work” – and the job-search and evidence requirements will also apply to them.

There are punitive measures for non-compliance with the new regulations. A “randomised controlled trial” of different types of incentive for these new “part-workless” has just been launched. One group in the trial will receive only “light” guidance, but the other group is to be summoned to “challenging” interviews after two months of not earning “enough” (e.g. 35 hours work at minimum wage).

If deemed not to be making sufficient efforts either to get paid more or work more hours, both working and “workless” claimants face sanctions or workfare. Such measures not only individualise and punish the UK economy’s turn towards low and underpaid work, and blame the working poor for their own poverty, but they also sanction them through loss of benefits.

A perfect storm

The gendered impact of UC is clear: because women comprise the highest proportion of both low-paid and part time workers, women and less well-off couples with children (who may earn under the conditionality threshold if one partner is not working full-time and the other is low-paid) will be among the first in line to feel the smack of the new welfare governance. They will face a “perfect storm” of high childcare costs and “in-work conditionality”, with lower flexibility for single parents’ structural barriers to work.

The new work and “evidencing” requirements will integrate women coercively into the low-paid labour market and heighten their dependence on precarious work, while doing nothing to address the gendered pay gap or women’s disproportionate concentration in precarious labour (which underlies their lack of income).

Further, UC creates new challenges for parents. It has particularly dire consequences for single mothers, who must now seek work as soon as their youngest child reaches five, although this can be organised around school hours.

Under the Universal Credit Regulations 2013, single parents with children aged over one must attend “work-focused interviews” on pain of sanction and will be expected to obtain full-time work with a maximum commuting time of 90 minutes when their child is 13.

Under previous regulations, “lone parent flexibilities” allowed a limited latitude to single parents to turn down jobs which clashed with their childcare responsibilities. This has now been relegated to “guidance” applicable at the discretion of the JobCentrePlus “work coach” – who has the power, it will be recalled, to sanction claimants if s/he considers that their commitments have not been met.

The structural barriers to single-parent work (and particularly flexible work) as required by the UC are brutally clear. While an affluent family may be able to hire a nanny or house an au pair to provide childcare while both parents are in full-time work, this is not an option available to the low-paid.

In the absence of affordable childcare, it may make financial sense for a parent to work part time to accommodate childcare responsibilities. But, under UC, women with children over 13 could face sanctions for failure to take up a job opportunity with long or “flexible” hours and a 90-minute commute each way, with diminishing concern for its effects on childcare obligations, particularly where children are over 13.

Contradictory messages

The government has largely ignored these gendered consequences, and has avoided mention of single motherhood, in favour of more positive-sounding issues such as family stability.

Policymakers are actually sending highly contradictory political messages through this new system. Ringing indictments of worklessness and“intergenerational poverty” have attained a new vigour in the post-austerity era, as blame for the crisis has been very effectively diverted away from global market failure and the flaws of the financial industry to the poorest members of society.

This is reflected in UC, as the opprobrium historically targeted at “bad mothers” (usually working-class and single) as embodiments of national decline is now being expanded potentially to include even those “hardworking families”beloved of cross-party rhetoric if they can be shown to be earning ‘too little’.

At the same time as women and families are being morally indicted for their inability to create “stable” families in the face of austerity, they are being asked to pull themselves out of poverty through low-paid work and zero-hour contracts.

The reality is that a system making working claimants responsible for “earning enough” fails to acknowledge both that average UK wages have stagnated(particularly since the onset of austerity in 2008), leading to a significant drop in real income, and that the flexible mobile workforce envisaged by UC and the global market is not conducive to extended family-care arrangements, even if family care were available for free.

This creep of punitive neoliberal logic into the day-to-day lives of working-poor families should be a matter of grave concern to everyone. In a country where mothers in particular are not only blamed for having too many children, but also for failing to spend sufficient time and energy rearing and disciplining them, the inherent cruelty of the UK welfare reform is exposed for all to see.


This article was originally published by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute and in OpenDemocracy as part of the Austerity and Recovery series.