Universal Credit reforms are urgently needed to prevent those most devastated by the pandemic from being left behind when the economy recovers, according to a new Citizens Advice research.
The organisation says that ineffective or onerous job search requirements, a lack of assistance with upfront childcare costs, and inflexible benefit regulations for disabled individuals can all act as obstacles to employment.
An estimated 360,000 people – the equivalent of Nottingham’s population – who lost work in March or April 2020 remain unemployed a year later. A further 2.4 million Universal Credit claimants are still hunting for employment, with four job seekers for every available position.
Citizens Advice says that populations already at a disadvantage when it comes to job search have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, putting them at risk of an unequal recovery and long-term economic scars.
According to the survey, those under the age of 25 were five times likelier to lose their job during the initial lockdown than the rest of the working population. Over 200,000 young people have been unemployed for six months or longer in total.
Additionally, it demonstrates that more than one-third of jobless disabled persons had been hunting for work for more than a year, compared to one-seventh of unemployed non-disabled persons.
Furthermore, one in every three unemployed single parents have been looking for work for more than a year, compared to one in five working-age persons.
According to the organisation, its frontline advisors have observed hundreds of instances where Universal Credit’s regulations make it more difficult for people to find work.
These include parents considering taking out an expensive loan to cover the upfront costs of a nursery place in order to work, as Universal Credit will only repay the fees retroactively.
Another member of staff assisted a domestic abuse victim who worked up to 40 hours per week looking for work under the pressure of their work coach, although experiencing extreme discomfort and anxiety.
While vacancies are increasing in some industries, the charity’s research found that over two-thirds (62%) of unemployed persons on Universal Credit expressed a lack of confidence in their ability to find work in the next six months.
Nearly nine in ten (88 percent) Universal Credit claimants reported that their financial condition is affecting their mental health.
Citizens Advice fears a ‘K-shaped’ recovery, with some people regaining employment rapidly and others unable to find job. It expresses particular concern over long-term unemployment, which is currently expanding at its fastest pace since 2010.
Since March last year, Citizens Help has provided one-to-one advice on Universal Credit to over 450,000 clients.
With the highest-ever number of Universal Credit recipients seeking work, the charity is appealing for reforms to Universal Credit to ensure the system is fit for purpose.
This includes increased flexibility on the part of DWP work coaches to ensure that individuals are not assigned inadequate job-seeking requirements, which could result in their cycling in and out of insecure work or being sanctioned.
Additionally, the charity is urging the government to reduce barriers encountered by disabled individuals and single parents by covering childcare costs in advance and reviewing eligibility rules for disability work allowances.
Dame Clare Moriarty, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said: “This has been an unequal crisis and we now face an unequal recovery, with those hardest hit by the pandemic facing an uphill struggle to find work.
“As the economy reopens, the government has a crucial opportunity to prevent irreparable scarring from this crisis.
“Key to this will be making sure the rules in Universal Credit are fit for real life. That means supporting people into work, not pushing them into unsuitable jobs or adding to their stress and worry with the threat of sanctions.”