Universal Credit: A terrible, dangerous place to be?

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UK Job Centres oversee benefits claims (stock image)

Are parts of Canterbury becoming a “terrible, dangerous place to be”?

These are words written by  psychologist Jordan Peterson in his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life. He uses them to describe the lowest echelon of society.

“The bottom of the dominance hierarchy is a terrible, dangerous place to be,” he writes. “You are more likely to fall ill, age rapidly and die young.”

I have been researching how families and individuals manage to survive at the sharp end in Canterbury — and I am starting to feel that Dr Peterson has got the measure of it.

Take Universal Credit (UC) as an example. As the Canterbury Journal has already reported, at least five per cent of food bank clients in Canterbury, Herne Bay and Whitstable have been going there in recent weeks because of problems claiming this benefit.

The trustees at the Canterbury Food Bank expect this to rise when UC is introduced for all claimants — rather than new cases, as now.

UC has hit the headlines over the last fortnight. But many people are probably confused by what they have heard about it. Why would the government introduce such a badly-designed system?

The truth is that UC is poorly structured, driven by ideology rather than practicality. The original aim was to create a system which encouraged unemployed claimants to seek work.

But, as a Citizens Advice report titled Universal Credit and Modern Employment says, “only half [of working households surveyed by Citizens Advice] felt they would be able to increase their employment income”.

It concludes: “For these households, the risk is that – despite working to the extent they are able to – they are pushed towards serious hardship or debt.”

UC produces both winners and losers — but is particularly bad for “most single parents” and many “two-earner couples with children”, according to the highly-respected Institute of Fiscal Studies.

These groups were already struggling, according to the Child Poverty Action Group in its Cost of a Child research for 2018, published in August.

Two parents working full-time on the minimum wage to support two children would still be £49 short a week — or nearly £2,500 a year — according to this report.

Many of these parents will be recipients of UC, as salaries are so low that over 30 per cent of UC claimants are in employment.

After the concerns expressed in the last couple of weeks, we now wait to hear if and how UC will be softened. The fact that the government seems to be so confused is a bad sign.

The architects of the system, the Conservative Party, do not agree among themselves — another symptom of the underlying chaos in this area.

In Canterbury, we seem to be fortunate in having officials in the JobCentre who care about their claimants.

Various experts in the benefits system have spoken highly of the co-operation they receive from this arm of the Department of Work and Pensions. But, however decent they are, these officials cannot make up for a benefits system which is so fundamentally flawed.

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