Out-of-work families claiming Housing Benefit cannot afford better homes than low-income working families
Recent Housing Benefit reforms, which will have devastating impacts for families across the UK, have been sold to the public as ‘putting people on benefits on an equal footing with working families’. But, to little fanfare, research published by the DWP last week demonstrates that this characterisation of the Housing Benefit (HB) system is simply not accurate. Most families on HB are not in better accomodation than they could access if they were working, and there are not strong incentives for working families to claim Housing Benefit.
The research also found evidence of stigma being attached to benefit claimants (which has surely been exacerbated in recent weeks given current rhetoric) and an element of distrust of benefits and of relying on the Government. The study concluded that families often saw claiming HB as a last resort, and, to some extent, an admission of failure.
The analysis, which started in 2009, aimed to consider what comparisons could be made between Low Income Working Households (LIWH) and HB recipients in the Private Rented Sector (PRS), as well as what the comparisons meant in terms of the type, costs and access to PRS accommodation among both groups. Key findings of the research include:
- It would be a mistake to see ‘HB claimants’ and ‘low income working families’ as totally distinct categories. Many interviewees moved between these categories, sometimes several times, so the same household could one day be a low-income working household and the next a claimant. Where HB is claimed as an in-work benefit, households are essentially both low income working households and claimants at the same time.
- Low-income working households are slightly more likely than HB claimants to be living in a house/ bungalow rather than a flat/maisonette and to be renting furnished. LIWH are also less likely to be living in accommodation below the (previous) Decent Homes Standard than were HB recipients. This brings home the reality of accommodation that many out of work families are living in – far from being accomodated in palaces at the taxpayer’s expense many are in unfurnished low rent properties without proper heating.
- In terms of the properties occupied by LIWH, the great majority live in accommodation of the ‘right’ size (in terms of the number of bedrooms) or larger than those that would be deemed appropriate under HB regulations. Hence, in this respect the HB standards do not seem over-generous towards HB recipients compared to LIWH.
The research concluded that HB arrangements do not unduly favour LHA recipients compared to most low-income working families, with the exception of a small group of households with children aged under 16 who are worse off than other household groups in terms of the property size that they occupy and the rates they would be entitled to if they were eligible for HB. Essentially a small number of large families in expensive rental areas are accommodated in better accommodation when out of work than they could afford in-work on a low income, but this specific issue is not representative of the HB system overall. Unfortunately enormous and badly thought through reform of the HB system is being justified on the premise that it is.