Welfare at a (Social) Distance: Accessing social security and employment support during the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath

Lead Research Organisation: University of Salford
Department Name: School of Health and Society

Abstract

The benefits system is crucial to supporting people during, and after, the COVID-19 crisis but is under extraordinary pressure from an unprecedented wave of new Universal Credit (UC) applications. The benefits system therefore faces two significant challenges:

(1) Urgently, to provide timely income and support to claimants. The wave of new applications places stresses on DWP processes (e.g. ID verification), exacerbating pre-existing concerns over the five-week wait for payment and the shift to a digitalised benefits system. Navigating this 'virtual' system often depends on in-person help (from e.g. advice agencies) and the extent to which claimants can access support remotely is unknown.

(2) Later, helping claimants quickly return-to-work, whilst maintaining security for those out-of-work. Not only do 'new' claimants differ from existing claimants, but they are entering an altered system, with higher payments and reductions in conditionality/employment support. However, there is little knowledge about these new claimants, the operation of the 'new' system or the 'exit strategy' that follows.

There is no time to waste; initial payments to the cohort of new applications are due late-April and major changes in the operation of the benefits system are likely to occur shortly after social distancing ends/relaxes. As such, this 18 month project will provide large-scale evidence on how well we are meeting these challenges and where the system is struggling in order to help policy makers and practitioners to develop rapid solutions. To provide this vital evidence, we will use the following methods:

(1) Surveying claimants
We will conduct an online survey of 8,000 new and existing claimants. We will start this within three weeks of commencing the project and go back to these people twice over the during of the project.

(2) Case studies of claimant support
We will also speak to the people who provide support to claimants. Using case studies of Leeds, Newham, Salford and Thanet, we will conduct 8-12 interviews (48 in total) with people providing this support (e.g. local authority, voluntary organisations, Jobcentres).

(3) Interviewing claimants
We will also carry out in-depth interviews with 80 claimants. These individuals will be interviewed twice (160 interviews in total) starting our first interviews in May. Participants will be recruited from both our survey and case study areas to ensure we include a diverse range of experiences.

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