Money matters in low moderate income families and the gender implications of welfare reform in the uk


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Money matters in low moderate income families and the gender implications of welfare reform in the uk

  1. 1. This paper is part of the proceedings of the 2ndAnnual conference on Qualitative Research for Policy Making, 26 & 27 May 2011, BelfastNote: Please do not cite or quote without permission from the authorsMoney matters in low/moderate income families and thegender implications of welfare reform in the UKFran BennettSenior Research Fellow, Department of Social Policy and Intervention,University of Oxford, UK( Sirin SungLecturer, School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work,Queens University Belfast, UK ( AbstractThe new coalition government in the UK is bound by equalities duties which require it tohave regard to the impact of its policies on various groups, including women. This paperwill investigate to what extent this legislative commitment is influencing ongoing debatesabout the government’s radical proposals for long-term welfare reform, and in particulardecisions about the design and delivery of the proposed ‘universal credit’. In doing so, itwill draw on the lead author’s recent experiences aiming to draw policy makers’ attentionto relevant findings from qualitative research (about how low-income couples managemoney and negotiate gender roles), in order to inform these decisions. These qualitativeresearch findings include in particular a study carried out by both authors, involvingseparate semi-structured interviews in 2006 with men and women in 30 low/moderateincome couples in Britain.A major aim of this research - which formed part of the Within Household Inequalitiesand Public Policy project in the Gender Equality Network, funded by the Economic andSocial Research Council ( - was to facilitate analysis of the effects ofchanges in welfare reform policies which took account of gender roles and relationshipswithin the household. The paper will therefore demonstrate how the findings from theseinterviews, and other recent qualitative research studies, can be used to examine thepotential advantages and pitfalls of the universal credit from a gender perspective.The authors will use this example to explore two broader issues: the value of qualitativeresearch to policy design and debates, in particular as a supplement to the insights ofeconomic modelling (which have been highly influential in driving the current 62
  2. 2. government’s thinking on welfare reform); and the essential elements of a comprehensivegender assessment of welfare reform to fulfil the spirit as well as the letter of the currentequality duties. 1. Introduction and background to proposals for universal creditThe current coalition government in the UK has recently introduced proposals for radicalwelfare reform, which at the time of writing (May 2011) are being discussed in a PublicBill Committee (see, for example, Citizens Advice, 2011 for an explanation). Theseproposals reflect the government’s focus on ‘welfare to work’ – moving people frombenefits into employment – and redesign the means-tested elements of the social securitysystem, leaving non-means-tested benefits largely unchanged.As with all such policy proposals, they are subject to statutory equality duties, whichmeans that they must be assessed for their impact on protected groups, including women.We explore the gender implications of the proposals for universal credit, and relate themto the duty to carry out a gender impact assessment, below. And we demonstrate thevalue of insights from qualitative research in ensuring both that such an assessment iscomprehensive and that policies such as universal credit work for everyone. But first weoutline the main aims of the proposals, the background to their introduction, and theirmain elements.The twin emphases of the reform are benefit simplification and work incentives. This isno accident. The previous Labour government set up a Benefit Simplification Unit withinthe Department for Work and Pensions, which had to vet proposals for policy change toassess whether they were contributing to complexity. Several reports had also beenpublished, by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others, drawing attention to the potentialimpact on work incentives of the benefits and tax credits system (see, for example, Kay(2010) and Martin (2009)). Prior to the general election in May 2010, both the Labourgovernment itself and various think tanks and pressure groups had proposed versions of a‘single working age benefit’ which was intended to be a response to these concerns aswell as others (Sainsbury and Stanley, 2007; Centre for Social Justice, 2009). However,these schemes involved the development of means-tested benefit models, which thereforecarried forward the very characteristics of complexity and potential for disincentiveswhich means testing usually embodies. Very few proposals for welfare reform in therecent period have managed to escape this paradoxical paradigm (see, for example,Horton and Gregory, 2009).The coalition government moved fast on welfare reform, as in so many other areas ofpolicy. The consultation document published in 2010 (DWP, 2010a) already contained aclear outline of the ‘universal [sic] credit’ that was at the core of the government’s plans,and the White Paper (DWP, 2010b) and subsequent Welfare Reform Bill (2011) fleshedthis out without any major changes being made as a result of the consultation process.Universal credit is to bring together the major means-tested benefits for people ‘in work’and ‘out of work’, as well as benefits to meet various additional costs, including somehousing costs. In effect, the distinction between being in and out of work is being 63
  3. 3. abolished, in that one means-tested benefit will be available whatever hours of work arebeing carried out; there will no longer be a step change from an out of work to an in worksystem of support once hours of work reach a certain level as there is now.This fusion is meant to deal with two problems that have figured prominently in recentanalyses of the benefits and tax credits system in the UK. The first is the lack of incentiveto take ‘mini-jobs’ of a few hours per week caused by the very low earnings ‘disregards’(amounts of ignored income) for many workless groups on means-tested out of workbenefits; the government states that under universal credit ‘all work is rewarded’, fromthe first hour onwards. This will overturn a longstanding objection to maintaining peopleon benefits whilst doing marginal jobs, which has hitherto prevented moves in thedirection of higher disregards for unemployed people in particular (Millar et al., 2006),despite evidence from (for example) the voluntary organization Community Links thatthis might lead to people working in the informal labour market and pressure fromGingerbread to change the rules on ‘mini-jobs’ for lone parents.The government is overcoming this, however, by extending conditionality to people inwork on universal credit (until the level of their earnings means they are not entitled to itany longer). The second problem that universal credit is intended to deal with is thedisruption to claimants’ income flow caused by having housing benefit reassessed and/ormoving from benefits to tax credits once hours of work reach a certain level. Anotherproblem emphasized in recent research with claimants has been the scope for confusionand lack of certainty about entitlement caused by the existence of a multiplicity ofdifferent benefits and tax credits (see, for example, Haddad et al., 2010). There werevarious ways of dealing with these problems; but the government decided to solve themby devising universal credit.There will be a single payment of universal credit incorporating the various elementsbeing amalgamated, with a single taper rate applied to this payment until it is exhausted;this replaces various payments of benefits and tax credits, each with differing withdrawalrates. (However, some benefits, including council tax benefit and any replacements forcertain one-off payments via the Social Fund which are being abolished, will beadministered locally, and may have widely differing eligibility criteria and withdrawalrates, thus undermining the much vaunted simplicity of universal credit.) Universal creditwill be phased in from 2013, being paid to new claimants at first, with others transferringon to it later; there will be transitional protection for any cash losses. 2. Potential gender issues in relation to universal creditThe proposals for universal credit contain a number of structural features which appear tohave implications for gender equality both within and outside the household - and whichon the surface it would be reasonable to expect would be considered in a gender impactassessment under the statutory equality duties (see below).First, claims for universal credit by couples will have to be joint, and both partners willhave to fulfill work-related eligibility conditions if appropriate, as well as both being 64
  4. 4. responsible for reporting changes in circumstances, being liable for any repayments etc.As with current means-tested benefits and tax credits, assessment of income and assetswill be joint. Thus, couples1 are being treated as one unit, with sharing of resourcesassumed, and an assumption that joint responsibility is unproblematic – whereas, asdemonstrated below, research suggests that this is not necessarily the case in practice,because of gendered inequalities of power within couple relationships.Secondly, the coalition government has a clear focus on getting one person in eachhousehold into work as a priority, rather than on facilitating employment entry for alladults (DWP, 2011b). For many lone parents, this should lead to an improvement in thereturn they get from a job – especially ‘mini-jobs’ of a few hours per week. However,instead of there being additional income for working 16 hours or more per week (or 30hours or more), the trajectory will be smoother from one hour of employment upwards;and these bonuses at certain points will be replaced by the extension of conditionality topeople in part-time jobs if it is thought that they should be working longer hours for morepay. This could have both advantages and disadvantages for lone parents, the vastmajority of whom are women.However, the converse of this is that one earner per household is the policy focus, ratherthan facilitating employment entry for all adults As now, there will be one ‘disregard’(amount of earned income ignored) for a couple, rather than one for each individual.Many (actual and potential) ‘second earners’ in a couple will see their incentives to work,or to work more, worsen under ‘universal credit’, primarily because the current deductionrate for tax credits will be increased significantly when universal credit is introduced,according to current plans. More ‘second earners’ are likely to be women. Thegovernment suggests that if the result of this change – and the improved ability of themain breadwinner to maintain their family which may be brought about by universalcredit - is that some ‘second earners’ give up their jobs (or do not enter employment) thiswill increase the family’s choices about their work/life balance. In other words, differentgender roles within couples are not problematized; and work/life balance is seen as afamily rather than an individual issue. (The implications of the faster response toadditional income - and hence withdrawal of a significant percentage as universal creditis withdrawn – which is planned have not been explored by the government. But previousresearch has demonstrated that ‘second earners’ are in general more influenced by‘disincentives’ than primary earners.)The third characteristic of universal credit with gender implications is the arrangementsfor payment. Couples will be able to choose which partner is the payee (DWP, 2011a).Universal credit will therefore not be split between partners, as may currently happenwith the rules on tax credits and means-tested benefits (which stipulate that the partnerdesignated by the couple as the ‘main carer’ should get child tax credit for children,together with any money to help with childcare costs). And housing benefit will beabsorbed into universal credit, rather than (normally) being paid to the tenant, that is1 Whilst the focus of this paper is male/female couples, many of the rules of current means-tested benefitsand tax credits, and of universal credit in future, will apply to same sex couples living together as well. 65
  5. 5. person liable to pay the rent. (The government will continue to have the power, as now,to pay benefit to the other partner in the couple if the person getting universal credit is notmaintaining them; but this is only used in emergency cases.) The arrangements forpayment of universal credit, which mean that one person will get the whole payment,suggest that economic dependence within the family is not seen as an issue of concern;and that the widely accepted view that money for children should go to the person mostlikely to be responsible for spending it (as argued, for example, in evidence to the Workand Pensions Select Committee’s recent inquiry into universal credit by Ruth Lister) isnot seen as a priority.Fourthly, payment of universal credit will be likely to be monthly, although this has notyet been finally decided. Currently many means-tested benefits are paid fortnightly, andtax credits can be paid weekly or four-weekly depending on the claimant’s choice.Monthly payment will mean that whoever is responsible for day-to-day spending in low-income families is likely to feel the brunt of this change; this is most likely to be women.In sections 4. and 5. below, about our qualitative research with low/moderate-incomecouples for the Within Household Inequalities and Public Policy research project, wedemonstrate the relevance of our findings to these key gender issues in relation touniversal credit. First, however, we outline the current situation as regards thegovernment’s statutory duties in relation to investigating the implications for genderequality of its own policies, including universal credit. 3. Current equalities duties in the UKThe government must show due regard, when developing new policies and processes, totheir impact on race, disability and gender (including gender reassignment); the EqualityAct 2010, which came into force in April 2011, adds new categories to this list.Implementation of this duty in practice means that processes should be in place to helpensure that the government’s (and other public bodies’) strategies, policies and servicesare free from discrimination; that departments comply with equalities legislation; that dueregard is given to equality in decision making; and that opportunities for promotingequality are identified.In recent years governments have begun to issue impact assessments of their policies, inorder to demonstrate the effects of such policies in general. They may do this at theGreen Paper stage of consultation, at White Paper stage when proposals are clearer, andwhen a Bill is published. The Treasury publishes a Green Book to guide governmentdepartments in carrying out such impact assessments.Under the equalities duties, governments also now publish equality impact assessments ofproposed policies, usually at the same intervals. The Equality and Human RightsCommission (EHRC) has issued guidance on how such equality impact assessmentsshould be carried out; in particular, it lays down that they should demonstrate the impacton protected groups (including women) of the proposed policy changes. This should be 66
  6. 6. done, argues the EHRC, in order to ensure that policies do what is intended, and that theyachieve this for everyone.Part of the purpose of our research, as explained below, was to demonstrate that in orderto conduct comprehensive assessments of policy proposals - especially those whichinvolve changes to benefits and tax credits, and associated labour market policies, such asthe current proposals for universal credit - more account should be taken of the existenceof gender inequalities within households. We go on here to describe our research and thefindings that emerged that are of direct relevance to the welfare reform proposalscurrently under debate in the UK. 4. Qualitative research about gender and money in low/moderate-income couples: research methodsRecent research that formed part of the Gender Equality Network ( isof key relevance to the assessment of the government’s proposals for welfare reform,including universal credit. This is because its central aim was to find out more about whatgoes in within heterosexual couples, in particular in relation to the management anddistribution of financial resources, and to be able to take more account of this in assessingthe impact of welfare reforms and associated policies. The research was known as theWithin Household Inequalities and Public Policy (WHIPP) project, and was a multi-method project involving qualitative, quantitative and policy simulation elements.2This paper draws in particular on the qualitative research element of this project (see, forexample, Sung and Bennett, 2007), which involved semi-structured interviews with 60men and women individually in male/female couples living on low/moderate incomes inEngland, Scotland and Wales. The couples had all had children at some point, and werevirtually all of working age (with some having one partner of pension age). Most were onmeans-tested benefits and/or tax credits at the time of interview and/or had been in thepast. They were all members of a sample of households originally recruited to the BritishHousehold Panel Survey to boost its coverage of low-income households, and had beeninterviewed for the BHPS from the late 1990s to 2001. Though this was not deliberate,they were all white; and all but one couple were married. Some lived in households withgrown-up children.The interviews covered how the couples dealt with finances and managed their money insome detail, but also included questions about their perceptions about benefits and taxcredits and the division of labour within the household. The data was analysed with thehelp of the Nvivo software package. 5. Research findings and implications for universal credit:2 RES-225-25-2001 ( This research was project 5 in the Gender Equality Network,funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The other two principal investigators were Prof SueHimmelweit of the Open University (working with Dr Jerome De Henau) and Prof Holly Sutherland of theUniversity of Essex. 67
  7. 7. importance of independent incomeWhilst the interviews revealed a deep loyalty to coupledom amongst both men andwomen, they also demonstrated that women were more aware of issues to do withautonomy and independence, whereas men were on the whole not conscious of them.Women valued access to an independent income, not only via wages but also sometimesvia receipt of a specific benefit in their own right: ‘If I wasn’t [making that contribution via wages] then I’d be dependent on him. I don’t like being dependent on people. Although [my wages] are, like, family money, they’re like, my wages.’ (Case 1, woman)Several attributed their ‘say’ in decisions on household finances to this. We explore theissues relating to the importance of an independent income in this section.The interviews also showed that traditional gender roles persisted amongst these couplesin particular in relation to managing the household budget, which previous research hadshown to be often the responsibility of women when resources were limited, and whensuch a role could lead to anxiety and stress (though sometimes also pride in a job welldone). In the couples interviewed for the WHIPP project, the women were oftenresponsible for spending on the children, and for food shopping and purchasing ofeveryday items etc. These findings are explained in more detail in section 6. below.First, however, in relation to the importance of independent income, the first finding toemphasize is that a clear loyalty to togetherness was demonstrated by the couples in thisresearch, who had often been married for many years. ‘All in one pot’ was the mostcommon catchphrase used by both men and women to describe how they dealt with theirmoney, and members of both sexes talked about their ‘team’/‘partnership’ and said therewas ‘no yours and mine’ in the way they handled resources. Most had a joint bankaccount to which both had access and many said they made joint decisions about money.However, ‘choices’ as exercised by the couples – for example, in terms of who primarilylooked after the children, or did the bulk of the housework, and who had a full-time paidjob – were demonstrably gendered choices. Joint decisions do not always mean decisionsmade equally, or with equal impact on opportunities and outcomes.3 Choices as exercisedby couples ‘together’ are not the same as individuals’ choices; and jointness andmutuality are not the same as gender equality, but could be seen as more akin to the ideaof the ‘unitary’ household in which the interests of its members are seen as one.Secondly, as noted above, receipt of an independent income, whether via wages or a non-means-tested benefit, was likely to mean that an individual had more of a ‘say’ on whathappened to household finances; was able to maintain separate finances if they wished todo so; did not have to regularly ask for money from their partner; or no longer had tojustify their personal spending to their partner: ‘I used to [justify my personal spending], but I think not now I’m earning my own3 This issue was explored in more detail and across a much wider range of couples in quantitative analysisof the British Household Panel Survey by our colleagues Prof Sue Himmelweit and Dr Jerome De Henau. 68
  8. 8. money. Because he was the main breadwinner, I suppose I felt I had to ask for money if I wanted it for my clothes and things.’ (Case 18, woman)Moreover, whilst joint accounts were common, were seen as important by most of thosewho had them, and were often seen as symbolic of marriage and togetherness - as well asbeing useful in practical terms - this did not necessarily result in either joint managementof finances or equal access to resources. More men than women were said to be the onesresponsible for managing the joint account; this might be because men were more likelythan women to be the ones responsible for paying regular bills by direct debit. Some mendid not access the joint account to draw money out, but again this was often because ofthe respective roles of men and women in relation to finances – to generalize, paying bills(men) and doing the shopping (women). This is expanded on in more detail in section 6.Women were more likely than men to have their own individual account in addition tothe couple’s joint account. They were also more likely, when they did so, to see this asimportant, and to express this importance in terms of independence: ‘I think you’ve got to have a little bit of your own … I wouldn’t say security … but I’ve never been used to being totally hand in hand with somebody with finances.’ (Case 27, woman)Certain benefits and/or tax credits were often paid into women’s individual accounts –sometimes, it seemed, to balance the (man’s) wage that was going into the joint account.Other qualitative research has concluded that independent income can give women more‘say’ in household finances (Goode et al., 1998; Rake and Jayalatika, 2002). A recentqualitative study that involved interviews with 30 black and minority ethnic women inthe northeast of England living in couple households on low incomes found that somewomen had so little access to income that their husbands were in control of virtually allaspects of their lives (Warburton Brown, 2011). Even for those couples who had a jointaccount and who were described by the women as having a financially equal relationship,subsequent questioning revealed apparent gender inequalities; and those who said thatthey had more of a ‘say’ attributed this to having some earnings of their own. Thus thisresearch confirms the findings of the WHIPP project, described above, that access to anindependent income may be important to women in particular; that this can make apositive difference to their power within the household; and that neither loyalty to‘togetherness’ nor the existence of joint accounts can necessarily guarantee equal accessto resources by both men and women.In section 2. above, characteristics of universal credit with potential gender implicationswere highlighted. These included the joint assessment and ownership of universal creditby individuals in couples, and the position of ‘second earners’ under the reform.The qualitative research reviewed in this section suggests the importance of anindependent income, via access to wages or benefits. This was the case in particular forwomen, who clearly valued this in terms of their position in the household. However, theInstitute for Fiscal Studies – as well as the government’s own policy briefings onuniversal credit – has shown that actual or potential ‘second earners’ in many couples on 69
  9. 9. universal credit will face much higher losses from each (additional) pound of wages thanthey do under the current system. This is before the effects of any changes to help withchildcare costs are included; the percentage of childcare costs taken into account for suchassistance via tax credits has already been reduced from 80 to 70 per cent, and thegovernment, whilst wanting to include those working under 16 hours per week, does notwish to expand the spending envelope – which will mean that under universal creditmany (lone parents and) ‘second earners’ in couples will receive lower amounts ofchildcare support too.Moreover, although child benefit is being retained as a non-means-tested benefitalongside universal credit, and will still be paid to the mother (unless there are goodreasons otherwise), the Secretary of State has hinted in the past that it could be absorbedinto universal credit at some future date. And whilst non-means-tested carer’s allowance– which provided an independent, albeit low, income for several women in the WHIPPresearch study – is also being retained in the welfare reforms, the narrowing of theeligibility criteria for disability living allowance will be likely to reduce the numbers ofcarers who can get carer’s allowance. 6. Research findings and implications for universal credit: responsibility for spending and managingIn our sample of low/moderate-income couples, we found some continuity of traditionalgendered patterns of money management. One example was that men often seemed to beresponsible for paying the (often monthly) bills, whilst women were mainly responsiblefor household shopping, which tended to be more frequent: ‘I’m bills, she’s food etc.’ (Case 17, man). ‘I am mostly responsible for, like, the food shopping and household things, and [he] deals with rent, bills, like electric, gas and that sort of thing.’ (Case 17, woman)So women were more likely to be responsible for purchasing lower cost items that wereneeded more frequently. (This could also include giving regular pocket money to the manfor personal expenses, sometimes daily.) This was not universally the case – for example,if women had a monthly salary, and/or their employment was more stable, the mortgagemight come out of their pay. For one couple, however, in an unusually stark example ofthe importance of gendered responsibilities, the solution was to exchange wages: ‘My wages go into [her] bank and [her] wages go into my bank … the simple reason being because [she] is paid monthly and that pays the bills, that stops in the bank and pays all the direct debits. I get paid weekly and [she] does the shopping, and we find it works a lot better like that.’ (Case 13, man)The interviews also included questions about individuals’ responsibility for spending onthe children and handing over any money for childcare costs; and about which parent thechildren went to if they wanted/needed something. In virtually all cases, the woman was(or had been) the partner who had carried the main responsibility for ensuring thechildren’s needs were met: 70
  10. 10. [Who had the main responsibility for spending on the children?] ‘Me … Me I would think really … I think, because the mother tends to be a bit more with it …’ (Case 9, woman)Childcare costs were hardly ever incurred, as the vast majority of the couples in oursample had only informal childcare, if any; children were seen as parents’ responsibility –or in practice, as noted here, primarily mothers’ responsibility.Evidence from other qualitative research suggests that women in low-income families areoften the ‘shock absorbers’ of poverty (Lister, in Women’s Budget Group, 2006), tryingto protect their children and partners from its effects. Such evidence confirms that womentend to manage household budgets in low-income families, where this is often a source ofanxiety and stress (albeit also sometimes pride), rather than power (Goode et al., 1998).Recent research demonstrates the ‘juggling’ that people on low incomes often have topractise to get by, using the timing of bills and different income payments to managetheir expenses and debts from week to week (IPPR, 2009). And a range of studies haveconfirmed women’s primary role in such families in ensuring that children’s needs aremet (eg Warburton Brown, 2011; Rake and Jayalatika, 2002). Families generally say theyneed some security of income, so that they know what amount they will be getting fromone week/month to the next (see, eg, Sainsbury and Weston, 2010). Some lone parentsmay at crucial points in their children’s lives prefer to stay in a stable, even if not veryworthwhile, job rather than risk causing more disruption (Ridge and Millar, 2008).Other characteristics of universal credit with gender implications listed in section 2.above are the decision to allow couples to choose which one of them is paid (the wholeof) universal credit and the government’s intention to pay it monthly (though this has notyet been confirmed).Allowing couples to choose the payee is clearly preferable to a situation in which the‘main earner’ was paid universal credit. However, when gender inequalities within thehousehold are more likely to mean that men have financial control, and when genderinequalities outside the household mean that women are more likely to have no or verylittle other income, this arrangement could mean that the more powerful partner (morelikely to be the man) ends up with virtually all the family’s resources. Whilst the WHIPPresearch revealed some resentment from men that the label ‘main carer’ made them feelas though they were being identified as uncaring towards their children (due to the dualmeaning of ‘care’), there was no room for doubt amongst the sample of couples that themain responsibility fell to mothers in the vast majority of cases, as noted above. Thefailure to separate elements of universal credit and label some as being meant to meetchildren’s needs, paid to the ‘main carer’, as is the case currently with child tax credit,may also make it less likely that such money is spent on meeting children’s needs.The probability that universal credit will be paid monthly rather than more frequently islikely to mean that it is women who bear more of the pressure to make ends meet towardsthe end of the month. This is because, as the qualitative research above demonstrates,women are more likely to be responsible for buying the daily/weekly items needed for thehousehold. (Other research has also shown women are more likely to be the managers of 71
  11. 11. household debt, so may well be coping with the consequences of a move to monthlypayment as well (see WBG, 2006); but an all in one monthly payment removes some ofthe possibilities for juggling when benefits are paid in different tranches at differentintervals.)Lastly, the more responsive system envisaged for benefit withdrawal if earnings increaseis likely to mean that - instead of a ‘cushion’ of unchanged income for many people onin-work support (the result of the fixed six-monthly awards, and subsequently the highannual disregard, in the tax credits system) – in future the operation of universal creditwill mean incomes fluctuating from month to month in a way which may be quitedestabilizing. In addition, the localization of council tax benefit to local authorities, andthe replacement of such benefits as educational maintenance allowance and the SocialFund by local discretionary schemes, will introduce greater discretion, variation anduncertainty into other elements of some families’ incomes outside the scope of universalcredit. 6. Discussion: reflections on policy influencingThe involvement of one author (Fran Bennett) in debates on universal credit to date hasincluded, initially, assistance with a preliminary gender assessment of the government’sconsultation document on welfare reform by Janet Veitch, for Oxfam (reference).Secondly, help was provided with evidence for the judicial review of the government’sfailure to produce a gender assessment of the June 2010 Emergency Budget by theFawcett Society. Most important has been a succession of activities as a member of theWomen’s Budget Group (WBG) (sometimes with other colleagues), including briefingsof, and meetings with, civil servants working on the welfare reforms and a seminar forofficials in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Child Poverty Unit.Some of these activities involved substantive welfare reform policy issues relevant togender; others were related to work on the equality impact assessments that thegovernment produced at various stages (see below). They also included giving writtenand oral evidence from the WBG on the Welfare Reform Bill to the Public BillCommittee considering the Bill (WBG, 2011). Written evidence was also given in anindividual capacity to the Work and Pensions Select Committee for its inquiry intouniversal credit. This gives in total a wide range of policy influencing actions in relationto the gender implications of universal credit – though no direct contact with ministers,other than with other MPs at a sitting of the Public Bill Committee. Participation in aone-off discussion in a Woman’s Hour programme about the implications of universalcredit for families was also involved.The Financial Times (Sue Cameron, 12 May 2011) has commented on the degree of easewith which the government has to date managed to proceed with its plans for welfarereform. There has, for example, been nothing like the current ‘pause’ in relation to thereforms of the National Health Service, when powerful bodies such as the medicalprofession and important individuals within the junior coalition party, the LiberalDemocrats, have managed to persuade the government to put their proposals for GP 72
  12. 12. commissioning on hold. The theme of this paper is the use of qualitative research onlow/moderate income families to raise gender issues about the plans for a universalcredit. But it is worth noting first that there are several general factors which makesubstantive influencing of these plans particularly difficult.The first is that the government already had a clear idea about its objectives and itsfavoured system of achieving them. This was primarily due to the Secretary of State’sinvolvement in the Centre for Social Justice, the think tank which produced a schemecalled ‘Dynamic Benefits’ (CSJ, 2009) whilst the Conservatives were still in oppositionwhich Iain Duncan Smith took with him into government, with the aim of implementingsomething very like it. There does not seem to have been significant Liberal Democratopposition to these ideas, and it is clear that the Secretary of State is deeply (andsincerely) committed to implementing them. Recent cases of conviction carrying allbefore it that spring to mind – the poll tax, for example, or the Child Support Act - are nothappy precedents, however.Secondly, financial constraints to reform have rarely if ever been clearer. Not only is thereform being undertaken at a time of severe cutbacks in public expenditure to reduce thepublic deficit, but it is also being developed in the context of a desire by the coalitiongovernment to maximize savings in the social security budget in order to avoid moresubstantial cuts in other public services.Thirdly, the reform is clearly being driven by an administrative imperative – a desire tocut down on administrative costs for the government, by assuming that transactions willbe largely online; to make any changes practicable in terms of computer technology (forexample, by having only a single taper rate); and to facilitate employers’ participation inthe forthcoming ‘real time’ PAYE system, under which they will feed changes inearnings through to the Department for Work and Pensions every month in order to makeadjustment of benefit levels quicker and smoother. It is unclear, however, whether thelessons learned in terms of administering previous benefits and tax credits systems havebeen fully taken on board.Exchanges during the recent period of policy influencing have suggested that variousassumptions underlie reform in this area. One of these is that ‘you can’t (and shouldn’t)affect how families deal with money’ - by altering, for example, payment arrangements.Policy makers did not seem to be persuaded that (for example) money for children shouldbe paid to the ‘main carer’, despite the wide consensus in favour of this. But, as shownabove, research has shown that who gets income within a family can affect how it is used.Issues such as this also appeared to be treated as implicitly (less important) ‘delivery’issues, rather than (what were seen as more important and urgent) issues of design.Secondly, there seems to be a belief that ‘different households budget and handle theirfinances in different ways’, which means that no general rules of behaviour can bediscerned or relied on. But, as demonstrated above, research reveals that there arecommon gendered patterns in how many families handle their money; and policy alreadyintervenes in this area of behaviour in any case (for example, by paying child benefit to 73
  13. 13. the mother, unless there is a good reason not to). The policy briefing on payment ofuniversal credit (DWP, 2011a) also suggests that couples may pay it into a joint account,implying that this means both partners will be able to benefit. However, it is clear fromthe WHIPP interviews and other evidence that whilst joint accounts are a symbol oftogetherness they do not necessarily guarantee either equal management of money orequal access to it by both partners. In particular, in two cases in which women hadremarried but their own children still lived with them, they found it difficult to draw onthe joint account and preferred to make use of their own sources of money.So why has this and other research evidence not had more impact on the government’sthinking? It is true that the WHIPP research was not designed with the specifics of thegovernment’s proposals in mind, as it was originally developed in 2001. And, unlike theresearch reported in Goode et al. (1998), the participants did not always match thedemographic affected by universal credit specifically. But there seem to be other reasons. 6. Conclusions: the value of qualitative research and essential components of gender analysis of welfare reformThe government’s proposals on universal credit appear to have been influenced by twodocuments incorporating new developments in quantitative research. First, a paper byBrewer et al. (2010) for the Mirrlees review of taxation carried out by the Institute forFiscal Studies, and the Mirrlees review more generally, make an economic case foroptimal tax (and means-tested benefit) policies, which include an emphasis on theparticipation tax rate being crucial for those on low incomes but not for those higher upthe income scale. This emphasis justifies the tradeoff adopted by the government in itsproposals, which raise earnings disregards significantly at the bottom end.Secondly, the Centre for Social Justice report Dynamic Benefits (CSJ, 2009) whichmodeled the increase in employment and reduction in ‘welfare dependency’ which couldbe expected if work incentives were improved for those currently on out of work benefits.Whilst government documents have been careful to maintain the official tradition inpolicy documents of not using such ‘dynamic’ research – which aims to predictbehavioural changes as a result of policy reforms - this nonetheless appears to haveinfluenced the main stakeholders, by encouraging their conviction that the proposeduniversal credit can have significant beneficial effects in terms of reducing worklessness.MPs’ constituents and others have certainly contributed experiential evidence about theconfusion, uncertainty and fear created by a complex benefits system with different partswhich do not always articulate well together that has influenced the proposals. But manyother factors are also important in people’s real lives, including how benefits/tax creditssystems work in ‘real time’; how households operate as financial units which containindividuals; and in particular how money is not neutral but has social meaning:: ‘… the significance of the source of income, its recipient, and the way it is“labeled”, for shaping both perceptions and allocation of financial resources’ (Goode et al. , 1999, 11). 74
  14. 14. However, instead of these factors being influential, the government’s proposals appear tohave been shaped – or at least justified – more by specific forms of economic modeling.Incentives have been seen as key to motivation, and arguments based on the responses ofa ‘rational economic man’ [sic] have been central. Equal sharing of household resourceshas been assumed in these models. But the significance of roles and relationships, whichqualitative research can reveal, has not been taken on board in the same way.This has occurred in part because of the specific ideology informing the government’sproposals, which is not challenged by the particular forms of economic modeling it relieson. An out-of-date model of the family is being employed, which sees a more traditionalsole breadwinner pattern as desirable, and does not problematize the application of‘choice’ to families rather than individuals. But the question of how best to deliverwelfare to all individuals within the household is not adequately answered by usingeconomic models which adopt the same conventions, and also perpetuate unquestionedassumptions of equal sharing of resources within the household.This is unfortunate in particular because it is, ironically, possible that the genderimplications of the plans for universal credit could work against the achievement of someof the government’s own aims. For example, worse incentives for ‘second earners’ couldundermine the purpose of the individualized conditionality proposed under the WelfareReform Bill; if partners are going to be very little better off, if at all, if they go out towork or work more hours, the government’s efforts to ensure they comply withconditionality could be wasted. The return to a sole breadwinner model if second earnersgive up work or reduce their hours as a result of the changes does not fit well with thegovernment’s support for shared parenting demonstrated in its proposals for moreflexible sharing of leave after the birth of a baby between mothers and fathers. Neitherdoes it match the ‘right to return’ of women after maternity/shared leave, that the currentgovernment inherited from the previous administration but continues to support. And,given that there is evidence that lone parents are more likely to stay in the labour marketif they were earning when still in a couple, any discouragement of ‘second earners’ incouples may contribute in the longer term to a failure to reduce workless household - oneof the government’s main aims in its welfare reform proposals.The government is also committed to reducing the so-called ‘couple penalty’ in thebenefits/tax credits systems. This is the disadvantage that, some argue, is inherent in theamount of money it is possible to claim as a couple rather than as two single people. Thegovernment wishes to give the message that committed coupledom is valued andencouraged, and sees universal credit as going some way to achieving this. However, it ispossible that universal credit may have the opposite effect. The fact that it is probablygoing to be paid in one payment, to one person in the couple, only once a month, gives itan ‘all or nothing’ quality which could make those contemplating living together as acouple think twice. The person who is not the payee for universal credit will be likely tohave no other income if they are workless and have no national insurance benefit, otherthan possibly child benefit if they have children. But if they do not get any of these, theywill be completely dependent financially on their partner from the stage at which they 75
  15. 15. first make a joint claim. This is a highly significant step to take for anyone. For virtuallyall the women in one small recent study, for example, ‘the security of some financial independence was described … as providing the necessary security for the relationship to flourish’. (Lewis, 2006)It is evident that there is some awareness in government circles of the issues discussedhere. In a recent written parliamentary answer, for example, it is acknowledged that somemen can benefit at the expense of women from shared household income within somehouseholds, particularly those on low incomes (HC Hansard, 2011a). More significantly,perhaps, the most recent equality impact assessment of universal credit undertakes tomonitor the distribution of income within the household after its introduction – though itis not clear how this would be done (HC Hansard, 2011b). These signs may indicate thatthere is some concern about the gender issues raised by stakeholders – who will need toponder the most constructive use of a combination of qualitative and quantitative researchin relation to the implementation of universal credit to take this any further.In the meantime, the gender impact assessment of the proposals for universal credit in theWelfare Reform Bill (DWP, 2011c) examined the effects it would have on single men,single women and couples. And although, as noted, separate and more detailed ‘policybriefing notes’ have been published about (eg) payment of universal credit and ‘secondearners’, there has still been little examination of the changes in gender relations withinthe household and/or over time that may be brought about by the changes involved inuniversal credit.Principles for gender impact assessments of welfare reforms set out in the analysis of theconsultation document published by Oxfam (Veitch, 2010), adapted from Daly and Rake(2003), went beyond estimates of the numbers of men and women affected by theproposals and any amounts of money which might be lost or gained by each sex. It wasargued, for example, that the make-up and labeling of any payments that changed thebalance of resources between women and men should be investigated, as should theimpact such payments might have on (gendered) roles and relationships. In addition, anyassessment should examine the potential effects of welfare reform proposals on theautonomy and financial security of men and women; on the volume, and division, of theircaring responsibilities; and on inequalities within the household, both at the point ofchange and over the longer term.These principles reflect the concerns that informed much of the qualitative researchreported on above. They were in fact cited in the equality impact assessment of the WhitePaper on welfare reform published in 2010. But it is clear from this paper that they havenot yet been fully taken on board by the government – and that, if they were, a ratherdifferent picture of the advantages and drawbacks of universal credit might emerge. ReferencesBrewer, M., Saez, E. and Shephard, A. (2010). Means-testing and tax rates on earnings.Dimensions of Tax Design, London: Institute for Fiscal Studies (chapter in first volume 76
  16. 16. of report of ‘Mirrlees’ review of tax system). See also: Mirrlees, J. et al. (2010). Tax byDesign – The Mirrlees review: Conclusions and recommendations for reform. London:Institute for Fiscal Studies)Centre for Social Justice (2009). Dynamic Benefits: Towards welfare that works.London: CSJ.Citizens Advice (2011). Universal Credit: An exploration and key questions. London:CA.Daly, M. and Rake, K. (2003). Gender and the Welfare State: Care, work and welfare inEurope and the USA. Cambridge: Polity Press.Department for Work and Pensions (2010a). 21st Century Welfare. London: TheStationery Office.Department for Work and Pensions (2010b). Universal Credit: Welfare that works. WhitePaper. Cm 7957. London: The Stationery Office.Department for Work and Pensions (2011a). The Payment Proposal. Universal CreditPolicy Briefing Note 2. London: DWP.Department for Work and Pensions (2011b). Second Earners. Universal Credit PolicyBriefing Note 5. London: DWP.Department for Work and Pensions (2011c). Welfare Reform Bill: Universal credit –equality impact assessment March 2011. London: DWP.Goode, J., Callender, C. and Lister, R. (1998). Purse or Wallet? Gender inequalities andincome distribution within families on benefits. London: Policy Studies Institute.Haddad, M. and Longworth, H. with Fooks, L. (2010). Struggling with the System: Thecase for UK welfare reform. Oxfam briefing paper. Oxford: Oxfam GB.House of Commons Hansard (2011a). Written Answers 14 March, col. 126W.House of Commons Hansard (2011b). Written Answers 11 May, col. 1247W.Horton, T. and Gregory, J. (2009). The Solidarity Society: Why we can afford to endpoverty, and how to do it with public support. London: Fabian Society and WebbMemorial Trust.Institute for Public Policy Research (2009). When Times are Tough: Tracking householdspending and debt through diaries – interim findings. London: IPPR 77
  17. 17. Kay, L. (2010. Escaping the Poverty Trap: How to help people on benefits into work.London: Policy exchange.Lewis, J. (2006). Perceptions of risk in intimate relationships: the implications for socialprovision. Journal of Social Policy 35(1), 39-57.Martin, D. (2009). Benefit Simplification: how, and why, it must be done. London:Centre for Policy Studies.Millar, J., Ridge, T. and Bennett, F. (2006). Part-time Work and Social Security:Increasing the options? Department for Work and Pensions Research Report 351, Leeds:Corporate Document Services.Nyman, C. and Dema, S. (2007). An overview: research on couples and money. In J.Stocks, C. Diaz. and B. Hallerod (eds.) (2007). Modern Couples Sharing Money, SharingLife. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Rake, K. and Jayalatika, G. (2002). Home Truths: An analysis of financial decisionmaking within the home. London: Fawcett Society.Ridge, T. and Millar, R. (2008). Work and Well-being Over Time: Lone mothers andtheir children. Department for Work and Pensions Research Report 536. Leeds:Corporate Document Services.Sainsbury, R. and Stanley, K. (2007). One for all: active welfare and the single workingage benefit. In J. Bennett and G. Cooke (eds.) It’s All About You: Citizen-centredwelfare. London: Institute for Public Policy Research, 43-56.Sainsbury, R. and Weston, K. (2010). Exploratory Qualitative Research on the ‘SingleWorking Age Benefit’, Department for Work and Pensions Research Report 659, Leeds:Corporate Document Services.Sung, S. and Bennett, F. (2007). Dealing with money in low- to moderate-incomecouples: insights from individual interviews. In Clarke, K. Maltby, T. and Kennett. P.(eds) Analysis and debates in social policy: Social Policy Review 19. Bristol: The PolicyPress in association with Social Policy Association, 151-173.Veitch, J. with assistance from Bennett, F. (2010). A Gender Perspective on 21st CenturyWelfare Reform. Oxford: Oxfam GB.Warburton Brown, C. (2011). Exploring BME Maternal Poverty: The financial lives ofethnic minority mothers in Tyne and Wear. Oxford: Oxfam GB.Women’s Budget Group (2006). Women’s and Children’s Poverty: Making the links.London: WBG. 78
  18. 18. Women’s Budget Group (2011). Welfare Reform Bill: WBG evidence to the Public BillCommittee 22 March 2011. Available on WBG website: 79