Does sanctioning of benefit claimants drive them to need help from food banks?
In 2013, the proportion of benefit claimants being sanctioned reached record levels. Over 6% of jobseekers were having their out-of-work benefit payments stopped each month for a minimum of four weeks, and many more were going without payment while their decisions were under appeal. Many third sector organisations and researchers raised alarm that sanctions were being applied unfairly and were causing destitution, leading people to rely on the help of food banks to feed themselves and their families.
But not everyone agreed. In a House of Commons debate in June 2015, the then Minister for Employment, Priti Patel, stated “there is no robust evidence that directly links sanctions and food bank use”, dismissing reports from frontline charities and researchers submitted as part of a Commons Select Committee inquiry into sanctions.
This debate was the backdrop for our investigation into the relationship between sanctions and food bank use published in the Journal of Social Policy this month. Our paper draws on data from Trussell Trust food banks on the numbers receiving food in each quarter over 2012 to 2015, and then, in turn, links these data to official statistics on sanctions applied to Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants. We ask three questions. First, if the number of sanctions applied increases, is there a corresponding increase in the numbers fed at food banks over that same period? Next, we evaluated the flip of this, examining how declining numbers of sanctions related to the numbers fed. Lastly, we were concerned that the magnitude of associations might be muted in places where food bank distribution centres were less available, so we examined if the relationship between sanctions and food bank use changed with the availability of these centres.
Contrary to Priti Patel’s claim, we found a clear and robust association between sanctioning and food bank use. For every ten additional sanctions applied in a quarter in a given local authority, there was a corresponding increase of five more adults fed in food banks. The reverse effect was not as strong. For every 10 sanctions fewer than the previous quarter, the number of adults fed by food banks declined by about two adults.
Crucially, the observed relationship between sanctioning and food bank use was not as strong where there were fewer distribution sites. This changing relationship suggests the impact of sanctions on food bank usage is constrained by the availability of food banks. In other words, there might be people who are sanctioned and who then experience food insecurity, but who are not receiving help from Trussell Trust food banks simply because they are less available in their area.
From one perspective, this finding is too late. The number of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants being sanctioned every month has reduced dramatically since 2014 and so perhaps sanctions are no longer the major concern they once were.
But, this perspective misses a new critical issue: the number of sanctions being applied to those receiving Universal Credit. Sanctions are now being applied to jobseekers as well as working tax credit claimants and lone parents, among others, who have not been subject to such conditions for their benefit receipt before. In December 2017, an analysis of recently published Government figures showed that an average of 7% of Universal Claimants who were subject to conditionality had been sanctioned each month over 2015 to 2017. In light of rising food bank use over April to September 2017, this raises a question about whether Universal Credit sanctions are contributing to this rise, along with problems of implementation of Universal Credit and the long waiting period before benefit payment.
The social safety net was designed to prevent material hardship for people who are find themselves unable to work, due to economic conditions, disability, poor health, or caregiving responsibilities. The policy emphasis on getting everyone into work seems to overlook the real challenges of employment for some people. Placing stringent conditions on them and punishing them for failure to meet them is the current approach. However, as a recent National Audit Office report showed, there is scant evidence that this approach works. Even if people move into work, it is rarely sustained, and the jobs that people move into are often of poor quality. For others, such as people with health conditions, they are more likely to become economically inactive, that is, no longer looking for work at all.
Importantly, our study suggests an additional outcome: the inability to acquire food. Given the high rates of rent arrears, bill arrears, and debt among people using food banks, sanctions not only cause financial hardship in the short-term, but also long-lasting consequences. This might explain that while the numbers of people using food banks reduced when the number of sanctions declined in the local authorities, they did not do so by as much as the initial increase associated with increasing sanctions.
We hope that the Government will look closely at these findings. This is especially important for the over 450,000 people already receiving Universal Credit and who are subject to conditionality (Source: DWP, December 2017). If rates continue to be as high as before, over 1 in 20 will likely be sanctioned in the coming month.