By Esyllt Carr
Business reporter, BBC News

anonymous man

The coronavirus pandemic has seen record numbers of people claiming Universal Credit – but a poverty charity says its research shows the stigma around being on benefits has increased.

Alex, who doesn’t want to use his real name, says it had never occurred to him to claim benefits – until coronavirus gave him little choice.

A self-employed contractor in the construction industry, and part owner of a nightclub, he found he fell through the cracks of any government schemes to support workers.

“I’ve been a high earner and I think of myself as someone who gives back to the system, rather than takes from it”, he says.

But with a family to support and bills mounting up, he finally turned to what he describes as the last resort. “I swallowed my pride,” he says.

Stigma increasing

In the first three months after lockdown, there were 3.2 million new applications for Universal Credit.

But while the virus’ economic consequences have been far reaching and unprecedented, research from the poverty charity Turn2Us has found that the stigma around claiming benefits has become more pronounced.

One in four people surveyed by the charity in April said they believed claimants should be ashamed, up from one in ten of those asked in 2012.

The survey also revealed that 44% of people don’t think that those who claim benefits are treated with dignity and respect.

The charity’s Anna Stevenson – a welfare benefits specialist – says these feelings can deter people from claiming Universal Credit.

“It leads to people struggling unnecessarily when the support is there,” she says. “If we knew people were failing to get the medical help they needed because they were afraid of being judged by the doctor, we’d rightly see that as a national crisis – and yet, somehow when it comes to the welfare system it’s just accepted as normal. And that’s completely wrong.”

A DWP spokesperson said Universal Credit had “supported millions of people through the pandemic, with it processing “10 times the volume of claims we’d normally expect during our busiest weeks and getting money into the accounts of those in urgent need within days.”

“This study seems out of step with that reality.

“The vast majority of people are satisfied with the service we provide and we’re particularly proud that they feel fairly treated by us. In the latest Claimant Experience Survey, 81% of people were satisfied with DWP services,” it added.

‘I didn’t want to tell anyone’

However Alex says the stigma held him back from applying for support – running up credit card debt in the meantime.

What he says made a difference, was the fact that during lockdown, the process was temporarily handled entirely online and over the phone.

“It certainly wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined, based on what I’d read and seen on TV. I wish I’d done it sooner,” he says.

However, he admits the stigma remains. Now he’s working again, he’s still only told one person that he claimed Universal Credit. “I’ve held senior, well-paid jobs, I drive a nice car and go on nice holidays. I was embarrassed.”

‘I’ve worked for 30 years and never claimed a penny’

image copyrightJamie Watt

Jamie Watt from Suffolk also found himself applying for benefits for the first time after being made redundant from his job as a quantity surveyor at the start of lockdown.

“Initially I was very reluctant”, he says. “I’ve worked for 30 years and never claimed a penny. Not even when I was made redundant in 2008, but this time there was no prospect of work any time soon – I had no choice.”

Jamie was told he was only eligible for job seekers allowance, and received that for five months until he found another job.

He feels the pandemic has lessened the stigma around benefits – with lots of people finding that they’re relying on state support in some form.

“The furlough scheme has helped so many people. When all is said and done, that’s a government handout too and people are happy to accept it.”

Turn2Us says its latest findings show reform is needed to tackle the current levels of stigma. Amongst other things, they’re calling for those who use the system to have a say in how it’s designed.

“The question is what the long term impact will be on this large number of new benefits claimants,” says Anna Stevenson.

“We know that the experience of being out of work can cause increased anxiety and depression – and the additional weight of the stigma only adds to that.”

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