It almost felt like I was in a “job machine” where they would just churn out jobs they thought I could apply for even though I have an area of expertise which they disregarded. It’s very hard to maintain a level of respect for the job centre when from the get-go you are made to feel inadequate. (Mollie U)
Mollie U is one of 100 low income parents and carers taking part in the Changing Realities research programme who come together to document their experiences and to call for change. We have published a new report, ‘Making employment support work: an agenda for change co-produced by parents and carers on a low- income’ where we present six co-produced recommendations for change, written in collaboration with parents and carers on low incomes and our briefing partner IPPR, that have the potential to make employment support more effective for everyone.
The briefing reports on experiences of participants in Changing Realities and urges the DWP to accommodate personal circumstances within employment support and take into account the needs of individuals and families. Findings in the report suggest the current ‘work-first’ approach fails to provide adequate support for professionals transitioning into new fields, resulting in low-quality job opportunities and the persistent threat of sanctions. For instance, Mollie U explicitly expresses feelings of anxiety toward the social security system because she feels her personal circumstances and barriers to full-time employment will be overlooked:
I was working for a small charity previously, but they wanted me to work too many hours which would have significantly impacted the carers allowance I receive. I had to stop working as the workload became too heavy to juggle the children and a job which demanded late nights and a non-stop workload. I now feel anxious about returning to work as I feel I will be forced to take “any job” as opposed to one which will actually suit my family dynamic. (Mollie U)
When Changing Realities participants discuss their experiences of the social security system, conditionality is often central to the narrative. This holds true, even for people who are not obligated to seek employment, as highlighted in a recent blog post by a Changing Realities participant, Dotty G. There is a substantial body of evidence showing that benefit sanctions instil paranoia and anger amongst recipients, rather than enhanced motivation to look for work or employment outcomes. This is why in our report, we have called for the removal of the threat of sanctions. The enforced insecurity on recipients reduces their ability to look for work and the opportunity for a collaborative relationship with the state, as Aurora T, a lone parent who receives UC and Child Benefit, told us:
I live in perpetual fear of sanctioning and my work place have given me fewer hours next month. I work in care, and have a zero hours contract. As I am subject to conditionality, fewer hours will mean I will be visiting the job centre and searching for more work. (Aurora T)
On top of that, employers have no obligation to ensure their jobs offer quality conditions, and sadly, many available positions come with substandard working conditions. Evidence in our report suggests DWP policy seems to be based on the false premise that good quality employment is available for all those who seek it and there is no acknowledgement from Jobcentre staff that in reality this is not the case. Low pay often leads to people having to work multiple jobs to get by. For instance, Ettie told us:
I’m working 3 jobs because it’s a means to an end. If I didn’t have 3 jobs, I would be struggling even more. I’m incredibly busy but manage my work hours well. I enjoy my work because I support other people less fortunate than myself both directly and indirectly. (Ettie)
This often leaves people exhausted and financially worse off than if they worked one secure job. Changing Realities participants argue that the current system is out of touch with the contemporary labour market. In this, they are in agreement with employers, as reported by the ‘Universal Credit and Employers’ study, which argues that more needs to be done to shape the demand side of the labour market.
Overall, participants described a lack of understanding from DWP services about the kinds of barriers to work some people face, and that motivation is not a barrier to work. There are many reasons some people cannot enter full-time employment or employment altogether, for example health needs or caring responsibilities. Lili K, told us:
I wish I was able to get and keep paid employment. I would love to be a wage earner again and be able to provide a better standard of living for myself and my family. Unfortunately having BiPolar made that impossible for me when I took a pharmacological cocktail of mood stabilizers, anti psychotics, antidepressants, sedatives and sleeping tablets. Now I am not taking any medication, I experience mood swings much faster, more frequently, more intensely and painfully than ever before and this is also not conducive to turning up for work every day. (Lili K)
Additionally, secure employment opportunities are limited, and fluctuating hours and moving in and out of work can increase financial insecurity. We found there is routinely a motivation to enter paid work but trepidation about job quality, income, and losing benefits as Benny V told us:
Just got a new job so feeling hopeful, but worried that all my money is going to be cut e.g Universal Credit and going to be worse off. At my current job, I'm scared to even take a day off I'll too look after my child as I don't get paid, and my universal credit don't go up and work is not understanding. (Benny V)
Fundamental to our report, is the immediate and compelling case to improve the adequacy of social security payments, recognising the additional financial pressures created for families by sharply rising prices and the legacy of chronic underfunding of our social security system. Moreover, the evidence indicates that people are confronting considerable difficulties in fulfilling their basic needs, which inevitably hinders their job search capabilities and could potentially strain their rapport with both their work coach and the broader DWP/DfC.
This urgent transformation is essential, given that participants in Changing Realities frequently depict their interactions with DWP/Jobcentre Plus as adversarial, marked by hostility rather than the expected support and empathy. The quality of their relationships with work coaches had a significant impact on participants’ overall experience of employment support. Precious D, described being “surprised” by her encounter with a kind and understanding work coach:
Two work coaches (out of three) that I have had some interaction with did not show any understanding of my personal circumstances [a lone parent of five young children and a domestic violence survivor] but were acting in a pressurising manner. I felt kind of intimidated and scared. These are both female and male. Last year I met another work coach - she did display empathy and kindness. I was surprised. (Precious D)
Our report sets out six co-produced recommendations for change, developed in collaboration with parents and carers on low incomes. Together, these have the potential to make employment support more effective for everyone. If this six point plan were to be implemented, social security would be improved for everyone, with a significant improvement to employment support and relationships with the DWP/DfC. This work is pressing and much needed. It is work that can and should be done now.
Changing Realities is a partnership between the University of York and Child Poverty Action Group. We would like to thank the Changing Realities participants who shared their experiences and helped to develop the policy recommendations in partnership with the research team. We would like to thank IPPR for collaborating with us on this briefing and Teresa Frank, Slywia Slaby and Tom Flannery for their ongoing support.
The Changing Realities research project is funded by abdrn Financial Fairness Trust. abrdn Financial Fairness Trust funds research, policy work and campaigning activities to tackle financial problems and improve living standards for people on low-to-middle incomes in the UK. It is an independent charitable trust registered in Scotland (SC040877).