Couples balancing work and care: exploring the shifting landscape under Universal Credit (with Fran Bennett Univ of Oxford)


In the context of radical welfare reforms being rolled out under the umbrella of Universal Credit (UC), requiring both partners in a couple with dependent children to look for and enter work, even when one partner is already in employment, and merging a family's entire welfare entitlement - including money for living costs, children and housing - into a single monthly payment, as UC does, is unprecedented. The government claims that extending work activation and conditionality in couple families will reduce welfare dependency and help the partners achieve a better work-life balance. Decreasing the number and frequency of welfare payments reflects the world of work and will allow families to budget better, they say. Academics, civil society and advocacy organisations are less sanguine. Absorption of benefits intended for children into a single award, they point out, reverses a long established principle in UK social security that child-contingent benefits should be paid to the caring parent (Lister, 2010). Research also attests to the effectiveness of paying child benefits to the main carer in enabling state transfers to be redistributed within households (Lundberg et al., 1997, Goode et al., 1998). Other studies suggests that the labelling, separation and differential timing of benefits often assists rather than impairs money management, helping recipients to understand what the money is awarded for, facilitating budgeting and influencing on what or whom the monies are spent (Kempson, 1996, Goode et al., 1999). If the single monthly payment is made into an account to which one partner has no or limited access, inequalities of power within some couple relationships could also reduce the other partner's access to an independent income (Bennett and Sung, 2013). Reduced financial independence could, in turn, contribute towards relationship instability (Griffiths 2017), countering the government's aim of supporting couple relationships and stable families.

Academics and civil society organisations have sought to raise awareness of UC's potential 'purse to wallet' income transfers and the possible adverse effects on women's financial independence, couples' management of their household finances, women's and children's poverty and couple's relationships (CPAG, 2010, Women's Budget Group, 2011). However, no-one knows how affected couples will respond to UC; these policies are untried and untested anywhere in the world. By conducting the first empirical study to explore UC's wider effects on couple families, findings from this research will help fill this important gap in the evidence base. This three year, longitudinal, qualitative research study will investigate how these aspects of welfare reform are being responded to and affecting work-care patterns, intra-household financial management and distribution, and gender roles and relations among a sample of 75 low-income couples with dependent children. To capture differential effects on men and women and changes in couples' behaviour over time, and to ensure the inclusion new UC claimants, as well as benefit and tax credit claimants migrated onto UC, separate and joint, face-to-face interviews with both members of the couple will be conducted in 4 UK areas - Bath, Cumbria, Merseyside and Inverness - over two phases of research. 50 couples, comprising 100 partners, will be interviewed in phase one, and 50 couples will be interviewed in phase two. Half of the phase two interviews (25) will be longitudinal and involve re-interviewing couples interviewed in phase one. The other half (25) will be couples newly recruited in phase two, giving a total of 75 couples and 150 partners across both phases of research. Findings and policy implications will be written up in relation to the design and implementation of Universal Credit, the reform of working age benefits, gender equality and work-family reconciliation policies, and widely disseminated to academic and non-academic audiences.
Effective start/end date14/03/1813/03/21