New research published in the Journal of Social Policy explores the health of long-term Incapacity Benefit recipients during a period of austerity and welfare reform in the UK. The UK social security safety net for those who are out of work due to ill health or disability has experienced significant change in recent years, most notably with the abolition of Incapacity Benefit (IB) and the introduction of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). These changes have been underpinned by the assumption that many recipients are not sufficiently sick or disabled to ‘deserve’ welfare benefits – claims that have been made in the absence of empirical data on the health of recipients.

The research explores the health of a cohort of 229 long-term IB recipients in the North East of England over an eighteen-month period, during a time of significant changes to the UK welfare state. In depth interviews with twenty-five of the survey cohort are also presented to illustrate the lived experiences of recipients. Contributing to debates surrounding the conceptualisation of work readiness for sick and disabled people, the research indicates that IB recipients had significantly worse health than the general population, with little change in their health state over the eighteen month study period. The in depth interview data reinforces the constancy of ill health for IB recipients. The research confirms the view that the changing nature of administrative definitions and redefinitions of illness and capacity to work can have a significant impact upon the lives of sick and disabled people.

For those in long-term receipt of IB, significant – and constant – ill health and additional barriers to labour market participation exist, and already difficult lives are limited by both illness and the stigmatisation of benefit receipt. This is coupled with shifting interpretations of ‘work readiness’ that are being attached to benefits recipients; what constitutes ill health for benefit recipients – or at least ill health of a sufficient level to receive state support – is a constantly changing and politically determined state, which may bear no relation to the real health or lived experiences of recipients. The research therefore calls for an approach that is not only ‘health-first’, but also ‘life-first’, which would allow for a consideration of the intricacies of the experiences of sick and disabled benefits recipients.

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