Coronavirus: Thousands are set to find out what it’s like to be poor – Peter Kelly

Welcome to the benefits system, designed to be tough on the needy – which used to be just people at the bottom, writes Peter Kelly

Rishi Sunak has begun a process of redesigning our social and employment protection system - but will these changes be permanent? (Picture: AFP)
Rishi Sunak has begun a process of redesigning our social and employment protection system - but will these changes be permanent? (Picture: AFP)

We are ­living in extraordinary times. Whilst a palpable sense of fear about the health impact of the coronavirus is perhaps the main feature of the moment, the outpouring of concern and compassion to our neighbours has been the other.

At the Poverty Alliance we have seen community organisations step in to help those likely to be severely impacted by this crisis. Amongst all the distress that will come with the pandemic, it is important to highlight and hold onto those selfless actions.

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While the crisis has brought out the best in many ­communities and individuals, it has also exposed the failings in our system of social ­protection and the labour market. New ­poverty statistics out yesterday serve to underline these failings. The figures – compiled before the lockdown began – show a country where one in four children grows up in poverty, where two-thirds of families living in poverty are in work, and where the safety net is in desperate need of repair.

On Wednesday, the DWP revealed that almost 500,000 people had applied for ­Universal Credit in just nine days. As people previously in employment struggle to apply for – and ultimately survive on – this benefit, they will get a harsh insight into the inadequacies of our social security system. Instead of a life raft to keep them afloat in difficult times, the system has been designed to be tough on those who need its support. We have a social security system that is not up to the job.

Behind yesterday’s statistics is the reality of policies that have pulled more people into poverty. Policies like the five-week wait for Universal Credit claimants to receive their first payment, which has led to rising food bank use and rent arrears. Jackie from Glasgow told us “the five-week wait is ­tipping people into crisis. I took the ­Government’s advance ­payment loan, forcing me into debt. All it does is demotivate, and plunge people into a spiral of despair and deterioration of mental health.”

It is also the impact of ­policies like the benefit cap which restricts the income that any family can receive from social security. This has disproportionately ­affected lone parents, and ­therefore women, with affected ­families seeing income cut by more than £3,000 a year on average, tipping them into poverty.

It is not just the social ­security system that has been exposed as failing. These new figures show that, for ­hundreds of thousands of people across Scotland, ­having a job is not enough to lift them out of poverty. This is either because the pay is too low or the hours available aren’t sufficient. As we have seen over the last two weeks, millions of workers are given little legal protection at work.

These poverty statistics tell a familiar story. But what has changed in the last fortnight is the idea that there is little we can do to change poverty and inequality in our society. The Chancellor has taken action that in his first budget, a mere three weeks ago, seemed unthinkable. ­Massive investment to protect jobs, the extension of statutory sick pay and an increase of £20 per week in the value of Universal Credit are just a few of the ­measures. He has begun a process of redesigning our social and employment protection ­system. We now need to make these changes permanent.

As hundreds of thousands of people wait for their first UC payment, now is the time to scrap the waiting period. Further increases in social security payments are also needed to ensure more people are protected against poverty. We need jobs that pay a real Living Wage and provide the security we all require.

Every day we spend at home is a day closer to returning to normality. But normality can’t mean back to business as usual. The fault lines have been exposed and the possibility of real, achievable ­solutions is more tangible than ever. We have seen not only the compassion and care needed to build a ­better ­system for all, but that resources can be found when the will is there. Let us use the conviction shown in the last weeks to turn the tide, not only on the coronavirus, but poverty and inequality too.

Peter Kelly is director of ­Poverty Alliance.