New study to examine impact of Universal Credit on mental health and wellbeing

Published 12th April 2021

A new study led by the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit will be the first to comprehensively evaluate the impacts and costs of Universal Credit (UC) on mental health and health inequalities.

The study is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and led by Professor Peter Craig, MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, and Professor Clare Bambra, Newcastle University. It also involves researchers from the Universities of Essex, Liverpool, Manchester and Northumbria.

Universal Credit combines six existing benefits and tax credits (known as legacy benefits) for working age people and their children into a single monthly payment. UC is designed to improve work incentives for people on low incomes but has been criticised for causing hardship due to conditions related to eligibility and the way that claims are managed and payments made.

By the time rollout is complete in 2024, over 8 million households are expected to be receiving UC payments – a number that may now rise significantly as a result of the impact of COVID-19 on the economy. 

The project will run until September 2025 and will involve:

  • Using large scale survey data to compare the mental health and wellbeing of adults and children in households receiving UC and those in households receiving the so-called ‘legacy benefits’ such as Job Seekers Allowance and Employment Support Allowance).
  • Analyses of surveys carried out by Citizen’s Advice to identify features of the UC claim and payments process that cause difficulties for claimants.
  • Interviewing claimants and Job Centre staff in the North East of England and the West of Scotland to explore the ways in which the experience of claiming UC affects the mental health and wellbeing of claimants, recipients and staff.
  • Developing a new simulation model that can predict impacts on income, employment and health of different ways of providing UC.
  • Examining the costs and consequences of introducing UC and whether they represent value for money.

Throughout the study, the team will work with UC recipients and organisations that help people with their claims to find out the best ways of involving people with the study, sharing information with them, and explaining what the findings mean.

Peter Craig, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit said:

“We know there is a strong link between income and health. We know much less about how levels of social security benefits and the way they are administered affects health. There have been many reports of hardship associated with the implementation of Universal Credit, but research to date has not provided a comprehensive picture of its impact on health or health inequalities.

"The way Universal Credit is administered has changed markedly in the past year and many people with no previous experience of claiming benefits will have received UC – our study will also explore the implications of these changes.

“Our findings will provide evidence that decision-makers can use to reduce harms or increase the positive mental health and wellbeing effects of Universal Credit in the future.”

Evaluation of the health impacts of Universal Credit: a mixed methods study

First published: 11 April 2021

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