Addressing vulnerability by putting cash in mums’ pockets

This blog was originally written for the Glasgow Centre for Population Health

There is a lot of negative attention these days towards those who are living with low incomes, and almost daily we see and hear reports of ‘lazy, work-shy scroungers’. When asked to estimate benefit fraud, people almost always woefully overestimate its incidence. In the British Social Attitudes Survey a third of people believed that “most people on the dole are fiddling” and over three quarters agreed with the statement “large numbers of people these days falsely claim benefits”.

The actual rate of benefit fraud in 2014-15 was 0.8%. If truth be told, there is rather the opposite problem, especially for those in low income working families with children; that is, those who are entitled to certain benefits do not in fact claim them. For example, UK government statistics for 2013-14 show that only two thirds of those who are eligible for Working Tax Credits actually claim their entitlement.

There are numerous reasons why a family may not claim their full tax credit or benefit entitlement, not least of which is the awareness of their entitlement in the first place. This is especially true of those having their first children who may also be negotiating the confusing tax credit and benefit system for the first time.

Tax credit and benefit payments have recently been criticised for being inadequate for people’s needs. As they are means-tested, this suggests that being eligible for, or in receipt of these payments, is associated with a high level of need to begin with. In 2015, an unemployed single person received out-of-work benefits equivalent to 40% of what even the public says they need. Whether or not you agree that the levels of tax credits and benefits are sufficient for a family’s needs, it is unarguably the case that being eligible and not taking up tax credit and benefit entitlement must be greatly detrimental to the financial wellbeing of a family and must greatly increase their financial vulnerability.

Recent research in Scotland that uses the Growing Up in Scotland data shows that families experiencing financial vulnerability have increased maternal emotional distress and lower child wellbeing. One way to help improve the outcomes of families, particularly mothers and children, would be to increase their financial resources and reduce their financial vulnerability. One very straightforward way to do this, within the current context of tax credits and benefits, with no additional entitlement from either the UK or Scottish governments, would be to ensure that people, especially families, claim their full entitlement to tax credits and benefits. This is known as income maximisation. There are multiple examples of good practice in income maximisation; however, one study in Glasgow targets the very population that has most to lose: mothers with new babies. It is called Healthier, Wealthier Children (HWC).

Healthier, Wealthier Children

HWC is an initiative that helps provide money and welfare advice to pregnant women and families with young children experiencing, or at risk of, child poverty across NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. HWC is primarily located within the frontline NHS early years workforce, such as midwives and health visitors in collaboration with local money/welfare advice services. Health staff identify the need for help and advice among pregnant women and families and refer them to partners in advice services.

The performance report to February 2016 shows that HWC achieved just over £11 million in cumulative financial gains for over 10,300 pregnant women and families. Comparing this cumulative figure of £11 million with the initial costs and combined annual running costs (approximately £2.2m), the project has conservatively achieved a benefit-to-cost ratio of around 5:1; a major achievement that exceeds the project’s initial remit and best case scenario expectations.

Why was so much money in Greater Glasgow and Clyde unclaimed? Well, an evaluation of HWC shows that families referred by HWC were unaware of their entitlements and would not have approached traditional mainstream advice services for help. On the plus side, as a result of HWC intervention, families reported reduced stress, improved mood and an increased sense of self-worth and security. Some also reported an improvement in relationships with family and friends.

We know that tackling poverty and income inequalities remains key to improving health and reducing health inequalities, and for the mothers and children who receive the HWC service this is certainly the case. What remains to be seen, in post-election Scotland, is whether such an initiative can be rolled out more widely, across all of Scotland, so that new parents can access that to which they are entitled and help prevent child poverty and financial vulnerability.

Once families are actually receiving their entitlement can we then focus the discussion on whether or not the level of entitlement is sufficient to prevent child poverty and financial vulnerability.

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