Unsuccessful benefit claimants during Covid-19 are often struggling with their mental health and finances, says new research

Categories: School of Health and Society

A new report shows that 290,000 people unsuccessfully tried to claim benefits during the Covid-19 pandemic, mostly because they were not eligible for benefits. Many had seen sharp falls in income, were struggling financially, and had poor mental health. Some were even going hungry because they couldn’t afford food.

Professor Lisa Scullion portrait

The report has been funded by the Health Foundation and links to the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project; a major national research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. 

Unsuccessful claims happen mainly because of the rules set by policymakers about who is eligible for benefits – most unsuccessful claimants had applied for benefits but were rejected (220,000 people). The most common reasons were that they had too much in savings or were still earning too much, despite the sudden decline in income that most had seen. Rejections largely came as a surprise (69.7%) and were felt to be unfair (73.5%). 

Far fewer unsuccessful claims happened because of issues with the process of claiming benefits – only 41,000 had failed to complete their application, due to difficulties such as verifying their identity online. 

More than half (52.6%) of unsuccessful claimants said that their income had fallen by more than 25% compared with life before the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly half (48.4%) reported severe financial strains such as not keeping up with bills, including one in seven (15.2%) who said that they had recently been hungry and not eaten because they couldn’t afford it. 

These financial pressures were accompanied by high levels of mental ill-health (e.g. feeling worthless or losing sleep over worry). Poor mental health was reported by 63.3% of unsuccessful claimants, far higher than the 37.5% reported by non-claimants.

Dr Ben Baumberg Geiger, lead author of the report and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Kent, said: “Little attention has been paid to unsuccessful claimants during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet they are often under considerable financial strain and have poor mental health, and some are more acutely deprived. While fundamental decisions about the benefits system require complex trade-offs, policymakers should think about whether the eligibility criteria for benefits could be changed so that it could help a greater number of those who are struggling financially.”

Dave Finch, Policy Fellow at the Health Foundation emphasised the need for inclusive financial support. He said, “The pandemic has highlighted the relationship between people’s income and their health. The research shows that failure to provide support when it is needed has had a serious negative impact on the lives of families across the UK. It is vital that, as the pandemic continues, appropriate support is put into place to tackle these unique challenges and protect people's current and future health.”

Professor Lisa Scullion (pictured), Co-Director of SHUSU at the University of Salford and lead of the wider project, said: “It is reassuring that so few people failed to complete an application for benefits during the pandemic. This is a surprisingly small number given the unprecedented surge in claims during lockdown, and reflects the process changes made by DWP in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, 290,000 people applied for benefits but were rejected. These unsuccessful claimants were using a variety of strategies to get by – often using their savings if they have them, borrowing from banks, or borrowing from friends and family.”

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