By Sadie Robinson
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2741

Damning study shows attacks on benefits have terrible toll on mental health

This article is over 3 years, 5 months old
Issue 2741
Campaigning against the hate Universal Credit benefit in south London
Campaigning against the hate Universal Credit benefit in south London (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Attacks on benefits have led to soaring mental health problems and more people taking their own lives.

That’s according to a new report for the Social Science & Medicine journal. It carried out a large-scale review of studies on the impact of social security policies on mental health in richer countries.

Its findings suggest that scrapping the temporary £20 uplift to Universal Credit (UC), brought in during the pandemic, would cause more serious harm.

Co-author professor Clare Bambra said, “The increase to Universal Credit of £20 a week should be maintained in order to protect the mental health of the most vulnerable.”

The report looked at 38 studies published between 2004 and 2020 from countries including Britain and the US. It found a “clear pattern” of more generous social security policies being associated with improved mental health.

Yet “policies that reduce eligibility/generosity were related to worse mental health”.

The report added that limiting benefits “tend to increase inequalities” whereas expanding them does the opposite.

Coronavirus, capitalism and a crisis of mental distress
Coronavirus, capitalism and a crisis of mental distress
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The studies reviewed covered social assistance policies and tax credits, retirement policies, benefits for families with dependent children, disability and unemployment benefit policies.

Some looked at “expansionary” welfare policies—those that either increased benefits, expanded eligibility or brought in a new benefit. Two thirds of these found “positive effects on mental health”—14 out of 21.

One reported “mixed” effects and the remaining six found no statistically significant effects.

An example is the expansion of working tax credits in Britain. Studies linked this to “significant positive effects on adults” and higher self-esteem among teenagers.

Elsewhere, findings linked the availability of early retirement benefits in the US to a “significant drop” in suicides. And higher child benefits in Canada were linked to less aggression and anxiety in children, and lower levels of depression in mothers.

Other studies looked at “contractionary policies”. These cut the value of benefits, make it harder for people to claim them or scrap an existing benefit altogether. Such policies “were associated with adverse mental outcomes in eleven out of seventeen reviewed studies”.


A myriad of attacks on benefits in Britain have caused “significant negative effects on mental health”.

After housing benefit was capped in 2011 “the prevalence of depression rose by around 10 percent”. Increasing the state pension age for women has “significantly increased” the chances of them becoming depressed, especially if they are poorer.

Disabled and unemployed people have been hit hard.

The report cited studies into the replacement of Incapacity Benefit with the more “stringent” and conditional Employment and Support Allowance.

One study covering England between 2004 and 2013 found that the reassessment process “was associated with a significant increase in the number of self-reported mental health problems and suicides”.

“For every additional 10,000 reassessed, there were 2,700 cases of self-reported mental health problems and six additional suicides,” it said.

Universal Credit claimants living in poverty during pandemic
Universal Credit claimants living in poverty during pandemic
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The impact was greater in poorer areas, so “increasing inequalities”.

After sanctioning increased “substantially” for Job Seekers Allowance claimants in 2012, there was a significant rise in people suffering depression or anxiety.

One study estimated that between 2013 and 2018, the introduction of UC “might have led to an additional 63,674 unemployed people experiencing psychological distress”.

The Tories have also made life harder for single parents. In 2009 those with a child under ten years old were unconditionally entitled to Income Support.

The Tories cut this to age seven in 2010 and then five in 2012. More parents were expected to look for work, leading to a “trend of consistently worsening mental health”.

The report concluded that “austerity-style” cuts to benefits can harm mental health “particularly for more vulnerable groups”. The scale of these cuts—and their impact—is staggering.

Tory austerity has snatched £37 billion from benefits over the past decade, according to the Resolution Foundation think tank.

The report shows why we need more resistance to the Tories’ deadly policies.

Read the full report here and join the Day of Action to demand more money for UC claimants – Saturday 6 February.

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