The Human Cost of the Benefits System

CW: Benefits System, Trauma, Mental Health, Death


Following the declaration of the state of lockdown in the United Kingdom (UK) lots of people have found themselves unexpectedly out of work. well some employees have done the right thing and worked to provide support for their employees during this difficult time many people are still left without the income they were planning on. In particular self-employed people many of whom has seen their income entirely disappear as events have been cancelled over the past week or two to have been offered very little support from the government at time of writing. A result of this is many is that many people who thought themselves to be in a relatively secure financial position are now at the mercy of the UK benefits system.


A lot of them are trying to use the safety net we’re told is there to catch those who need it and are surprised. Surprised at how complex and difficult it is to access, the often brutal requirements, and how meagre the financial support they offer is. And most haven’t reached the worst part yet.


When I was on JSA (Job Seeker’s Allowance) last year I utterly dreaded going to my meetings. It was such a soul sucking, dehumanising process which stripped me of my self esteem and left me in a state of stomach churning anxiety. This isn’t a mistake, or a peculiarity of individual workers, this is a feature of the system we live in. Some of the most vulnerable people in society are treated with unbelievable callousness, and subjected to intense psychological pressure.


If you’re middle class it is easy to think of people relying on benefits to survive as separate from yourself, I know that I did, until I needed them. A lot of people buy into the “scrounger” rhetoric, and many of those who don’t look away. Because we have been conditioned to view it as shameful, or simply because it’s too painful to think about. And now a lot of people need support and are finding out that the safety net has been hacked apart with a machete by 10 years of austerity.


There have been some good articles written about this topic in the last few days (Sian Davies has written about the effect of cuts on working class communities, and Polly Toynbee has written about the numbers involved). And the fact is I’m in a position of relative privilege, there’s not much more I can add. So instead I will use this platform to share the experiences of others.


My experience with the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] was traumatic (not a term I  use lightly, it triggered my PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] symptoms), when applying for ESA [Employment and Support Allowance] I was arbitrarily failed, reassessed and failed again, ultimately I had to take the DWP to court to have my benefits reinstated.

It felt like they were doing everything they could to deny me the financial support that I needed. Had I been any more vulnerable than I already was (class status, emotional support, access to advocacy & mental health care), I think that they would have succeeded. The appeals process is unfit for purpose, about 75% of appeals win at tribunal, so I think it’s clear there’s a problem with how the DWP are doing their assessments. And while I was going through it my benefits were cut off  for months (there is a reduced Appeal Rate I applied for, but the people at the DWP did not tell me this was an option). And the way I was treated by the DWP actively worsened the health issues which I originally applied for support with.

Without the support of friends, family, and advocates (financially, emotionally, and logistically), I would not have been able to push back against the DWP to secure the benefits that I need. Without this support, I am painfully aware of how easily I could have been made homeless, unwell, and possibly even become one of the tens of thousands of people killed by austerity. The next time I’m called in for reassessment I will refuse to go, they’ll fail me either way and it’s not worth retraumatising myself.

Anonymous (a disabled enby living in Leeds)


I’ve been in and out of the system all my life. My experience has been consistent frustration and misery at the hands of so many barriers, inconsistencies, hoops to jump through and mistreatment. These are deliberate parts of the system, and sometimes actual cruelty at the hands of individuals working within it. Time and time again I’ve seen people reduced to tears over deliberately difficult language, unclear instructions, and how they’re treated if they get something wrong.

I was on a mandatory Jobcentre course with a homeless guy. He had been on the local housing association list for a good while and they contacted him saying they had a flat for him to view, if he didn’t attend that time slot the flat would go to somebody else. When he informed the Jobcentre employee leading the course that he would have to take a couple of hours to go and accept a property in order to not be homeless, he was informed he would be sanctioned the moment he left.

I’ve had bad experiences under both governments. I will say that general organisation was pretty poor under New Labour, but accessibility and sheer cruelty has been indescribably worse under the Tories.

Being in the system for so long impacted my mental health in ways I struggle to even explain. At no point was I “motivated” to work. I was trying my hardest, and all that happened was I became more and more depressed and my self esteem plummeted. The mere thought of the Jobcentre makes me feel anxious and sick these days.



I’ve been a carer for many years and a few years ago I also started my own business, I’ve applied for benefits ranging from carer’s allowance and tax credits to PIP [Personal Independence Payment] (which we’ve had to take to tribunal twice).

When I was heavily pregnant there was an administrative mix up which meant we got no payments for 6 weeks. If my Nanna hadn’t leant me money. we’d have not been able to eat.

A lot of people are realising how easy it is to go from getting by to being unable to afford bills and essentials. Surely this shows that the system is wrong. If instead of a crumbling, insufficent, hard to navigate benefits system we had a universal basic income it would make so many lives better. It could actually save lives too.



I was signed off sick with mental health issues for 7 years (starting in 2004), I was lucky this was under a labour government – my experience was much better than my peers who are on benefits now.

An advisor told me that my severe mental health issues were not real. I also once ended up in hospital after a benefits assessment as they make you talk about your poor mental health but with no respite and calming at the end of the session.

The people who work in the system start out caring but their experiences aren’t helpful when it comes to mental health, and the pressures they are under means they don’t get to exercise empathy. The ones that have worked there for a long time often are jaded and fed up with dealing with people that in their eyes “don’t want to work”. I think the perception that middle class self employed people will get won’t be representative of the way that long term benefits claimants have, because they won’t be viewed in the same way.



Every time I had to call UC [Universal Credit], I was on hold for hours at a time. When I had a monthly sick note, they called me weekly to see if my depression had gotten better, at my health assessment, they asked to see my self harm scars and then said “Is that it?”

When I applied for PIP, I was marked down for actually showing up, maintaining eye contact and for wearing clean clothes. I scored 0 and was not given extra financial help.

When I was looking into university I contacted them straight away, recieved no reply and was trying to get in contact with them for months. Finally had an appointment, just to prove I’d started uni around December and they stopped my benefits on the day. I had to wait around three months to get an increase from student finance and ended up in a lot of debt.



I also asked every person I interviewed, “What do you wish was more broadly understood about the benefits system”, these were their answers:

  • It’s a hostile system, designed to deny you the benefits you need to survive by whatever means they can get away with
  • It isn’t just free money. The process and systems to get to benefits are harsh, dehumanising, and purposefully confusing. It is not a process that a person chooses to do, it is a process that people are forced to go through in order to survive.
  • It is designed to keep you where you are. You have no opportunity to advance or improve your situation (i.e. If you’re job searching, they make you do it for 40 hours a week and prove that, and apply for anything and everything, but then penalise you if you get a job you can’t do and get fired or leave
  • The money people receive is paltry. There’s no one living a high life, especially when disabilities come with a higher cost of living.
  • That it is not easy. That it’s not sitting around getting free money. That it’s deliberately set out to trip you up, trick you, exhaust you, dehumanise and frighten you. The whole system is meant to make you give up and go away. I really want people to understand that unemployment statistics are only people claiming a job seeking benefit. Only people who are deemed “fit for work” and are “actively seeking work”. When unemployment statistics are thrown out there, and shown to be reduced, that’s people kicked off. People sanctioned. Homeless people. People on long term and short term sick. It doesn’t mean for one second more people are in work.


These stories are not hard to find, the awful thing is that almost everyone who has been through the benefits system in recent years have stories like this. A lot of people have unexpectedly found themself at the mercy of the benefits system and are surprised at how awful it is. But this is nothing new, this is mostly not about the current public health crisis. This has been going on for years, and it will continue until we make a real change in how we as a society view benefits, and reflect that in who we vote for.

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