How To Cut Financially Struggling People Off At The Knees: Let Me Count The Ways.

In a room that stretches on forever, garment workers toil at their machines.
Dignity factory workers producing shirts for overseas clients, in Accra, Ghana photo by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
In a time of COVID, how many have come to work in crowded, poorly ventilated factories, knowing they are both infected and infectious? And why?

There is a significant range of views about social assistance, which provides emergency financial support. For some, the assistance is considered to act as a deterrent to getting a job. This view has persuaded policy makers and decision makers to design social assistance programs that “encourage” people who receive assistance to seek work. COVID has highlighted some of the risks of a work based social assistance system. Here are four examples, drawn from the United Kingdom, which is in its second lockdown.

Eligibility

If you’ve lost hours of work, or lost your job altogether, you may not be eligible for social assistance. Asylum seekers and refugees are two prominent examples,1 but this group also includes people who have worked in England for years and paid income tax.2 This was an issue before COVID, but with many more people losing work or working reduced hours, social assistance might have been a help toward keeping housing.

Timing

Ok, you qualify for assistance. You have no money, but the rules require that you wait for five weeks for your first payment. No problem! you can have an advance, which you’ll start paying back in five weeks time. The impact of this five week delay was well documented before COVID. People who received assistance were falling into arrears and being evicted at unprecedented rates.3 When combined with COVID, (when people are applying for assistance in unprecedented numbers) the five week delay means more and more people are going to be behind on their rent or mortgage payments and risk losing their homes.

Family size

Well, some of your family qualifies for assistance. This comes into play when you have more than 2 children in your family. You will have to make do with the amount provided for a household with two children, even though a larger household will have more costs. Larger households were at greater risk for eviction before COVID, and this continues to be the case as many more people have had to turn to assistance because of lost work. 4

Bedroom tax

Well, some of your rent qualifies for assistance. People who live in social housing are subject to bedroom tax, which applies when the home is not filled to maximum occupancy. One example is a parent with a child away at school. SAGE, the fine team of experts who are advising on the UK’s COVID response, have suggested that the bedroom tax be lifted during the pandemic, because a spare bedroom makes it possible to self-isolate. Nonsense, says the government. If the room is empty, then you should be finding a tenant and charging rent. Read more about this at Sky News: COVID-19: Bedroom tax could be worsening coronavirus spread and should be reviewed – SAGE advisers

These examples help us to understand why people continue to go to work, even if they have COVID-19 symptoms: it’s a matter of economic survival. While the rules may be different in other jurisdictions, their potential to work against COVID-19 protection measures deserve attention. Reforms should be considered, at the very least on a temporary basis.

Footnotes

  1. See page 22 here: Destitution in the UK 2020
  2. See page 11 in the above report.
  3. See: How “Minor” Bureaucratic Delays Magnify Into An Eviction Life Crisis
  4. See: A New-Born UK Child, Perceived And Treated As A Punishable Atrocity

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