Photo: Social Inequality from Quinn Dombrowski flickr photo stream

The UK benefits system is going through its biggest reform in 60 years. The revised system relies more heavily on welfare with conditions – that is to say, benefits allocated on the basis of assessments of individual financial or physical need. Whilst calls for introducing these sorts of conditions have been based on claims of fairness and equality, our research suggests that introducing more conditions has the potential to promote greater inequality and foster divisions both within the older population and between generations.

People aged 60 years and over in England are currently eligible to receive a range of State transfers of resources (‘benefits’). Some entitlements are based on age (such as the free bus pass for over 60s); others on financial contributions from earnings (such as the state pension); and others on evidence of financial need (such as housing benefit). Given the increasing numbers of people aged 60 years and over questions have been raised (in parliament and the media) about the ability of the State to provide benefits to an ageing population: the number of older adults living in Europe is expected to grow rapidly over the next 15 years, creating a number of new public health challenges. A generation once described as ‘deserving’ is now seen as an economic threat. Issues of ‘welfare deservingness were central to debates in the 2016 EU Referendum, raising questions about the ways in which people view welfare benefits and the consequences this might have for social cohesion.

For example, the ways in which benefits are delivered – and their conditional or universal basis – affects how people relate to one another. Older people that we interviewed in Sheffield, London and Cambridge talked about their experiences of managing financially as typical of their generation. ‘Our generation’ was characterised by our interviewees as having struggled to achieve independence and self-reliance. When we asked these people about welfare benefits, the receipt of universal age-related benefits (for themselves and other older people) was compatible with their view of ‘our generation’. Universal entitlement was experienced as social recognition: pensions, free travel and fuel subsidies are seen by older people as respect for hard work and resilience over a lifetime as a UK citizen. These welfare transfers were not seen as ‘benefits’ but, rather “something that we were entitled to automatically at 60”. The receipt of universal benefits facilitated a pride in getting older that might otherwise be threatened by other aspects of ageing. People talked about the ways in which the loss of working identities and increasing social and physical dependence on others threatened their sense of self; universal benefits helped some people to overcome this.

In contrast, conditional transfers provided on the basis of economic or physical need – such as pension credit – were more likely to be labelled as ‘benefits’ by the people that we spoke to. These benefits were negatively associated with dubious claims to entitlement and inappropriate use among an often unspecified group of ‘others’. In many interviews, people referred to class, generation, ethnic and national differences when discussing who should, and who should not, be eligible for benefits. Uptake of conditional benefits was also associated with vulnerability and seen as incompatible with ideas around purported levels of resilience of ‘our generation’.  In contrast with the respect associated with benefits provided to their whole generation, means or needs based conditional benefits highlighted the more difficult aspects of ageing: the decline in self-reliance, or the suggestion of a failure to manage (that is to say, to lack the resilience to cope). Others have shown that, in the context of increased welfare conditionality, there is often no legitimate way to be dependent on others – including the state – without shame. This might partly be because increased means testing individualises the need for welfare, casting social problems as personal problems. Universal benefits have the potential to establish claiming as a socially acceptable norm. Our study also showed that complicated claims processes could be fraught with shame, which stopped some older people from claiming conditional benefits. A substantial proportion of older people (estimated at between 27 and 38 per cent) do not claim their benefits entitlement. This means that people with a defined ‘need’ do not get their allowance.

Calls for introducing conditionality to benefits that are currently universal are often based on claims that this will create greater fairness and equality. In contrast, our findings suggest that introducing conditionality has the potential to promote inequality by creating barriers to uptake, and damaging the social solidarity that universal benefits has influenced.  Increasing conditionality may promote division within and between generations and this should be a central consideration in any further welfare reforms.

Acknowledgements: The research was funded by the NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR). The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health. Acknowledgements are due to Judy Green, Sarah Salway and Suzanne Moffatt for their role in the research.

About the Authors: Katie Powell is a Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield. Her work focuses on place-based health inequalities in high income countries, twitter: @DrKatiePowellStefanie Buckner is a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge. She has a research interest in Age-Friendly and Dementia-Friendly Cities and Communities, twitter: @stef_bucknerSarah Milton is a Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Her interests are in the fields of ageing, gender and sexuality, twitter:@sarahrosemilton