“I simply don’t know how I’d manage without it” – people share their experiences of the £20 uplift and the risks of taking it away.
By Emily Spoor, Research Officer
In April 2020, as the UK was hit by the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK Government made the crucial step of increasing the Universal Credit Standard Allowance and Working Tax Credit by £20 per week – worth more than £1,000 a year to a household. This decision has offered people dignity during the crisis and prevented tens of thousands from needing to seek help to feed themselves and their family.
Our new research, conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Trussell Trust, shows that the uplift has provided vital breathing space to hard-pressed budgets, with seven in ten (72%) people on Universal Credit since early 2020 saying the increase has made it easier to afford essentials. The risks of removing the uplift are also clear, as one in five people we surveyed think it’s very likely they’ll need support from a food bank if the removal goes ahead as planned.
Here, we explore people’s experiences of the uplift in their own words, as well as their thoughts and fears about a future without it.
The uplift means people don’t have to go without essentials.
The most common experience people shared with us was that the uplift allowed them to reliably afford basics, without, for example, having to go without food or ration the amount of time the heating was on. Having to go without essentials had been a common experience for people before the uplift.
“[The uplift] has made it possible to survive. Without it I could not afford heating or electricity.”
“I am a teacher and a single parent… The increase has meant that I can get food for the 4th week in a month.”
Several people explained that the increase meant they no longer needed to make impossible choices about what to go without, such as between eating enough and staying warm, or cutting down on food to afford a crucial, less frequent, purchase like shoes or a coat.
“An additional £80 a month is… the difference between being able to eat and having to choose between heating and food.”
“I haven’t had to choose between buying some food or a new pair of shoes because mine have got a hole in… I’ve been able to buy both!”
The uplift provides financial and mental breathing space, giving a route out of day-to-day survival and hope for the future.
Many people explained that the uplift allowed them to reduce – or even end – the need to rely on debt to cover daily costs. This has a practical and a mental health benefit, as debt repayments and overdraft costs further reduce the amount available to spend on essentials in the future and the feeling of spiralling can cause intense stress and anxiety.
“It’s made a difference in paying bills. I fell in arrears with a few utilities and it’s helping me get back on track.”
“[The uplift has made] a big difference. It meant my payment was bigger than my overdraft limit, so it would definitely get paid off every month.”
Another common experience of the uplift that people shared was the positive impact on their mental and physical health. From a parent being able to afford fresh food for their children to a cancer patient being able to keep the heating on, it was clear the uplift gave people the option of looking after their and their families’ physical health rather than being forced to settle for less.
“[The uplift] has enabled me to eat better. Before the increase I wasn’t able to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, because they were an extra I just could not afford.”
Improved mental health was also mentioned by many: both the absence of negative factors such as stress and anxiety, and actively positive changes such as increased self-worth. People told us that, as the uplift made it easier for people to afford all their essentials, their stress about what they might have to cut back on and how they’d manage to make ends meet was reduced.
“Less stress, money to pay for petrol, better food, less yellow tab food… better mental health, better physical health.”
“It makes me less stressed about the months end when I have to pay for the rent and all the bills. Every little extra helps.”
Several people explained that being able to afford to “contribute” by looking after their family was also hugely beneficial for their mental health. One person was able to save up and buy their family some Christmas presents, while another had been able to pay a monthly amount for a laptop for their son, allowing him to do his schoolwork properly from home.
“[The uplift has made] an absolutely massive amount of difference both financially and mentally. I’ve been able to contribute more to the household, making me feel more comfortable and worthy of living.”
Without the uplift, people will be forced to go without essentials again and find it harder to get back on their feet.
Since these positive impacts have come as a direct result of the £20 uplift, it’s unsurprising that when asked about its removal people told us these improvements to their lives would be reversed. Many people told us that without the uplift they’d be forced into debt to cover the cost of essentials or would be forced to go without again. This is unacceptable – no one should have to go without food, heating or other basics because their benefit income is too low.
“I already have to make choices about what to spend my money [on] and am juggling debts, fuel costs and buying food and essentials. With a retraction of the extra £20, I know I would face hardship, in keeping warm, feeding myself and paying off my credit card (which I used for car repairs)”
Fear and hopelessness about a future of having to manage on less were also common experiences. The prospect of hunger and cold and mounting debts, and fears about eviction or being unable to look after family members, meant the future looked bleak for many.
“Even the thought of my losing this £20 a week brings me close to tears.”
Several people explained that losing the uplift would knock them back, making it harder for them to find work or be financially independent from family. These things contributed to a feeling of hopelessness – it was difficult to see how things might improve for them without the small amount of breathing space the uplift had provided.
“[Losing the uplift would mean] complete loss of all independence and dignity as I’d be dependent on my brother for financial help. It’s humiliating… I will steadily slip further into debt.”
“I’ve been saving for new “work” shoes that are going to last. The retraction of £20 per week would mean I’d have to use that small amount of savings for essentials and continue not applying to jobs that need proper equipment.”
The government must continue to protect the millions of people who receive Universal Credit – and the many more who’ll depend on it as the economic consequences of the pandemic play out.
It’s clear that the level of benefits was not adequate going into the pandemic, and that the uplift has been an important lifeline. People’s experiences clearly show that keeping the Universal Credit uplift and extending this lifeline to legacy benefits is the right thing to do – and would help us take a big step towards a hunger free future.