By Ben Barr, Senior Lecturer in Applied Public Health Research, University of Liverpool, and Lee Bentley, Research Associate, University of Liverpool
The Chancellor of the Exchequer is due to deliver this year’s Budget on Wednesday. It is imperative that he provides additional financial support for disabled people affected by the planned cuts to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) – or risk further widening the disability–poverty gap.
One in three working age disabled people are living in poverty. Their risk of poverty is one and a half times greater than for people without a disability. The government’s strategy, however, for improving the lives of disabled people, focuses almost exclusively on the disability-employment gap rather than this disability-poverty gap (1). It is true that the high risk of poverty amongst disabled people is largely because they are less likely to be in work and supporting people into employment is an important strategy for reducing poverty. Welfare benefits, however, also play a crucial role in preventing poverty by limiting the loss of income people experience when they can’t work due to disability.
People who have lost their jobs because of a disability are likely to be out of work for longer than people who become unemployed. For this reason, disability benefits have generally been set at a higher level than unemployment benefits. From April, this will no longer be the case. The government is reducing the level of ESA for disabled people who are assessed as being currently unable to work but potentially capable of work at some time in the future. The benefit will be reduced by 30% to £73 a week – the same level as unemployment benefits. But whilst 60% of new claimants of unemployment benefits will move off the benefit within six months, 60% of people on ESA will still be claiming this benefit two years later (2). This means that many people out of work because of a disability will have to survive for long periods of time without an adequate income.
Levels of poverty are already very high amongst people out of work with a disability and have been increasing since 2010, particularly amongst people who have a low level of education – the group most reliant on disability benefits (see Figure 1). Cutting these benefits will exacerbate this adverse trend.
FIGURE 1: % of people with a disability in poverty, aged 16-64, between 2007 and 2014, by employment status and educational level
The government argues that reducing these benefit levels will incentivise disabled people to stay in or return to work (3), but there is little evidence to support this assumption (4), and some that suggests it may reduce their employment chances (2). Strategies to reduce the disability-employment gap over recent decades have increasingly focused on more stringent assessment criteria for disability benefits, reduced payment levels and requiring claimants to do more to prepare for work or risk losing their benefits (5, 6, 7). These strategies have had little impact on the employment of people with disabilities (8). It remains to be seen whether the government’s new strategy to halve the disability employment gap will be any more successful (1).
Even if the government’s strategy does improve the employment of disabled people, it is likely this will disproportionally benefit disabled people with greater skills and education (9, 10). The planned cuts in ESA will increase the risk of poverty for the most disadvantaged disabled people who remain out of work, and this may increase the disability-poverty gap.
Increasing poverty amongst people out of work with disabilities will adversely affect their health and increase health inequalities. We know that poverty damages peoples’ health, and adequate welfare benefits for people who can’t work can reduce these effects (11). We have seen that in recent years inequalities in health are increasing (12) in part due to disability benefit reforms (13). The severe cut planned by the government will further exacerbate these inequalities, potentially increasing levels of disability.
1 Great Britain, Department for Work and Pensions, Great Britain, Department of Health. Improving Lives: The Work, Health and Disability Green Paper. 2016 (accessed March 2, 2017).
2 Work and Pensions Committee. Disability employment gap. London: House of Commons, 2017 (accessed March 2, 2017).
3 Kenedy S, Murphy C, Keen K, Bate A. Abolition of the ESA Work- Related Activity Component. House Commons Libr Brief Pap 2017.
4 Barr B, Clayton S, Whitehead M, et al. To what extent have relaxed eligibility requirements and increased generosity of disability benefits acted as disincentives for employment? A systematic review of evidence from countries with well-developed welfare systems. J Epidemiol Community Health 2010; 64: 1106–14.
5 Watts B, Fitzpatrick S, Bramley G, Watkins D. WELFARE SANCTIONS AND CONDITIONALITY IN THE UK. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2015.
6 Banks J, Emmerson C, Tetlow GC. Effect of Pensions and Disability Benefits on Retirement in the UK. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2014 (accessed Sept 26, 2015).
7 Baumberg B, Warren J, Garthwaite K, Bambra C. Rethinking the Work Capability Assessment. London: Demos, 2015.
8 Mirza-Davies J, Brown J. Key statistics on people with disabilities in employment. House Commons Libr Brief Pap 2016; 7540.
9 Burstrom B, Nylen L, Clayton S, Whitehead M. How equitable is vocational rehabilitation in Sweden? A review of evidence on the implementation of a national policy framework. Disabil Rehabil 2011; 33: 453–66.
10 Clayton S, Bambra C, Gosling R, Povall S, Misso K, Whitehead M. Assembling the evidence jigsaw: insights from a systematic review of UK studies of individual-focused return to work initiatives for disabled and long-term ill people. BMC Public Health 2011; 11: 170.
11 Cooper K, Stewart K. Does money in adulthood affect adult outcomes? York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2015 (accessed July 30, 2015).
12 Barr B, Kinderman P, Whitehead M. Trends in mental health inequalities in England during a period of recession, austerity and welfare reform 2004 to 2013. Soc Sci Med 2015; 147: 324–31.
13 Barr B, Taylor-Robinson D, Stuckler D, Loopstra R, Reeves A, Whitehead M. ‘First, do no harm’: are disability assessments associated with adverse trends in mental health? A longitudinal ecological study. J Epidemiol Community Health 2015; : jech-2015-206209.
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