The human cost of welfare reform
by Claudia Wood
For the past 18 months, we here at Demos, with the support of Scope, have been running the Disability in Austerity project – following six disabled households to assess how a range of benefit and service cuts affect their lives. Now, two years to the day since the government announced the first cuts to disability benefits in the 2010 Emergency Budget, we have published the fourth and final report, reviewing what has happened to these families during this time and reflecting on their future.
The numbers are stark. Overall, we have calculated that disabled people and their carers are £500 million worse off since the government began to implement benefit reforms, just 14 months ago. The parents of a disabled child in our study are £410 worse off. A disabled mother and her disabled child are £558 worse off. A disabled man, now made to contribute his disability living allowance towards his social care costs, is already £1,280 worse off.
These losses aren't small beer for the lowest income households, often with higher living costs as they manage their health conditions. For the social care user, his £1,280 loss represents a 10 per cent cut in his income.
But behind these numbers are stories of the human cost of welfare reform. We heard how people couldn't afford replacement wheels for wheelchairs. How parents had to skip hospital appointments for their disabled child because they couldn't afford the diesel. How one couple had to stay home as they couldn't afford to go out, and another couldn't afford to stay home due to heating costs.
Beneath these disturbing anecdotes, we have identified longer term trends which have gradually become apparent through the course of this research.
First, there has been a deterioration in mental health. Reports of stress and depression for the disabled people in the study and their families have become more prevalent over the two years. A combination of financial hardship making life harder; the uncertainty and fear of what the future holds as new reforms take effect; and a pervading sense of hostility from the state – even feelings of persecution – as disabled people are treated with suspicion by welfare authorities and harangued in the media.
Second, there has been growing isolation and exclusion from community life as families move into what might be described as ‘survival mode’: a lack of resources and the closure of support services has led to families reducing their activities to the very basics, often within the home. So essentials such as medical appointments have been sacrificed, alongside ‘luxuries’ such as working, training and volunteering. Leisure pursuits and socialising are out of the question. Decades of work by disabled people and charities to promote inclusion and equality of access to a social, working and community life is unravelling as disabled people become socially and financially excluded and isolated in their homes.
Finally, the burden on informal carers is clearly increasing as formal support – or the resources to buy financial support – is cut away. The parents of the two disabled children in our study were under no illusion that they would receive any help from the state until they had reached ‘breaking point’, and were told – as support was taken from them – that they ‘should be able to cope’. All reported physical and mental ill health resulting from their burden of care – a growing problem highlighted in Carers Week this week.
These three themes, we believe, will be the lasting legacy of the government’s welfare reforms. Increasingly excluded, with deteriorating mental health, their families around them reaching breaking point. It is a bleak picture for disabled people. And yet, only 12 per cent of the government’s austerity plans have been implemented. Key welfare reforms – such as the replacement of DLA – are yet to come. Local authorities have three quarters of their budget cuts still to make.
These hard truths are reflected at household level. Although disabled people and their carers are £500 million worse off to date, we predict this group will lose £9 billion by 2015/16. So, however bad things are now, it’s clear that for disabled people, the worst is yet to come.