4 in 5 social tenants struggle to pay for essentials on Universal Credit

05 August 2021

Four out of five (79%) social housing residents say they have struggled to pay for at least one essential item whilst on Universal Credit, such as heating, clothes and Council Tax, according to a new report by the National Housing Federation. Four in ten (43%) residents have struggled to afford food.  

In the largest survey to date of social housing residents on Universal Credit, the National Housing Federation asked 3,520 tenants from eight housing associations about their experiences on the benefit.i 

Alongside difficulties meeting basic living costs, the findings revealed that a large proportion of people were relying on debt, with more than 4 in 5 (84%) respondents reporting borrowing money from friends and family, applying for loans including high interest borrowing, and visiting food banks. 

The shortfalls people faced were in part due to the five-week wait for universal credit. Some said they were pushed into debt during this period from which they have yet to recover.   

Residents said the experience of claiming Universal Credit had impacted their health and wellbeing, with higher than average levels of anxiety. In almost half of cases, claiming had given people a new physical or mental health condition or made an existing condition worse (48%). More than half (57%) of those whose health had been affected had been to see their GP. 

The survey was carried out in Spring 2021. Some respondents, including those who had been forced to claim Universal Credit after losing jobs or income during the pandemic, praised the benefit for supporting them through such a difficult time.  

However, the survey also demonstrates that even with the £20 a week uplift, many people and families on Universal Credit do not have enough money to live on.  

NHF analysis shows, at the time of the survey a single person over 25 would get £411.51 a month to live on. If the government continues with plans to cut £20 a week from Universal Credit in October, their total income will drop by a fifth (21%) to £324.84 a month. Prior to 1 April 2020, Universal Credit allowances had been frozen since 2016. 

The National Housing Federation is calling on the government to: 

  • Not cut £20 a week from people claiming Universal Credit in October
  • End the five-week wait for the first payment of Universal Credit
  • Increase funding for employment support and training to help people get back into work.

Anonymous quotes from housing association tenants: 

“The amount does not cover all my outgoings so I am juggling bills and skipping meals to ensure my children have food.” (Respondent aged 35-44, claimed Universal Credit between three months and six months) 

“It helped me in time of need when my business collapsed over covid.” (Respondent aged 55+, claimed for six months or more) 

“Universal Credit took me from a homeless mentally ill man living in a garage to a tenant being treated and recovering.” (Respondent aged 55+, claimed for six months or more)

Kate Henderson, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation said: 

“We must listen to what residents are telling us. Our report shows that people on Universal Credit are struggling to pay for food to feed their families, essentials like clothes and fuel to heat their homes. Many are relying on debt, which they cannot afford to pay back, just to make end meet. This is affecting people’s mental and physical health.  

“It was hugely positive that government took decisive action when the pandemic hit to support residents, and it is clear from these findings that this support needs to continue. 

“At its core, our country’s welfare system must ensure that people have enough money to live on. We strongly urge the government not to cut £20 a week from people on Universal Credit in October.” 

Who to speak to

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